Montgomery – City of Contrast
Trip Start Apr 30, 2010
52Trip End Sep 05, 2010
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We hadn't planned on visiting Montgomery, but as we learned a bit about it at the Alabama Weclome Centre and read about it while camping in our guide book (The Rough Guide to The USA, written and researched by S. Cook, JD Dickey, N Edwards and G Ward) Montgomery quickly became more and more appealing.
Montgomery was only about an hour away from the campsite, but we didn’t have too much time to spend there unfortunately since the lengthy drive (5 or 6 hours) to New Orleans lay ahead. Nonetheless, we’re so glad we stopped in even for a brief visit.
We have seen a lot of interesting contrasts so far, even in the short time we’ve been on the road. The Kentucky Derby was, as Hunter S Thompson put it, both "Decadent and Depraved". Next up was Nashille’s Holy Honky Tonk. But I wasn’t prepared at all for what I would experience walking through streets of Montgomery – incredibly, both the Cradle of the Confederacy and birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.
Montgomery, at just 200, 000 people, is considered the only metropolis in Southern Alabama, and is the State’s capitol. Driving into downtown, the streets are tidy, bright and of course lined with churches. The State Capitol gleams white atop the city, its Greek revival style rotunda visible from blocks away. As we rolled into town, the city center looked pristine and welcoming - so I was startled when we passed a placard in the median pleading “Montgomery, PLEASE stop the violence!” Somewhat unsettled, and all the more intrigued, we found our way to the city Welcome Centre.
Courageous. Visionary. Rebellious....
describe Montgomery (the city's slogan) as we learned at The
Montgomery Welcome Centre, which is a beautiful building right on the Alabama River and was once the Union Train Station. We decided to do a short walking tour to check out some main highlights in town and try to get a handle on the juxtaposition that still seems to grip this city.
We walked along Washington Street to the Civil Rights Memorial and Center. We spent some time contemplating the Memorial, which was designed by Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as well. As you can see from the photos, the Memorial is a large, conical granite table that is engraved with significant events of the Civil Rights movement – sadly, mostly the names of those killed in the struggle. Water flows up and streams across the granite from a source in the very center, and behind the monument is a curved wall reading Dr King’s famous words, “Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” , a paraphrase of Amos 5:24.
Reading incident after incident of deliberate cruelty was sobering and eye-opening, to say the least. More shocking perhaps was the timeline itself – dates in the 1950s and 60s, really not that long ago. How could people still be so hurtful and violent only decades ago? And as the sign we saw when we first drove in reminded us, how can it still go on today?
While we were slowly circling the monument, drawing in the names, events, and dates and trying to make sense of it all, a group of school kids came barrelling over. They looked to be in about grade 5, mostly black, a handful of kids of other shades. All beautiful, all smiling, each and every one impeccably dressed in a navy school polo shirt and khakis – skirts for the girls, shorts for the boys. They were so thrilled to run their hands in the cool water of the monument! No surprise either, since the smouldering afternoon sun had burned the surrounding pavement to scorching hot all day, and even at 4:00 its strong rays still beat down on all our backs and faces.
I don’t think any of them actually read the monument’s sombre chronology and as grade 5 kids in a burning hot day I can understand why. Their teachers quietly hurried them along, and the kids left in a tumble, giggling and whispering. Overwhelming to think of what their lives might have been like 50 years ago.
Ghosts of the Confederacy
It would be difficult to find a more stark contrast between our moments at the Memorial and the building that lies just three blocks over: The First Whitehouse of the Confederacy. This unassuming white clapboard house was the executive residence of President Jefferson Davis and family while Montgomery was the capital of the Confederate States of America. The original house was built in 1832-1835 (actually, as I found out later, by ancestors of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald – famed flapper girl and wife of F. Scott himself) and was renovated about 30 years later into the Italianate style that was popular in the South at the time.
The house, really, is quite charming and well kept. However, when you reflect on the reasons for secession – primarily dispute over slaveholders’ “rights” the house takes on new meaning. Confederate VP Alexander Stephens once declared that the "cornerstone" of the new Southern government,
"rest[ed] upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth"
In 1860, 6% of the population owned slaves – and 45% of the population was enslaved (Thanks, Wikipedia). The Confederate flag - flown atop the Capitol since 1961 to celebrate
the Civil War's Centennial as well as to defy the the federal
desegragation policies - was only removed and replaced by the Alabam State flag in 1993.
I thought about those little kids while I looked at that tidy little house.
Contrasting again, just blocks away, is the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, on the corner of Dexter and Decatur. Here, Dr Martin Luther King preached to the community from 1954 to 1960. The church is also where he organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott from his office in the basement, following Rosa Parks' famous refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger.
Montgomery is a fascinating town - I would love to go again and spend more time there.