Montgomery - civil war and civil rights

Trip Start Sep 01, 2008
Trip End Nov 19, 2008

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Flag of United States  , Alabama
Friday, September 19, 2008

For an otherwise largely nondescript town, Montgomery is steeped in history. It was the site of some key events during two different periods of turmoil in America: the civil war and the civil rights movement. At the start of the American Civil War, Montgomery hosted the white house - home of the president of the "confederacy" (those states that broke away from the rest of America). You can visit this white house, free of charge, at its current location (don't ask us what its original location was exactly), opposite the state capitol building in downtown Montgomery. Worth a quick look, while you are here, although the self-guided tour (i.e. brochure to read as you walk through the house) focusses mainly on who donated which piece of furniture to the display.

Just two blocks down the road - but don't worry, when the lady at the "white house" pointed us in the right direction, she told us that we could always jump on the trolley bus if we got tired (!?)) - is the civil rights memorial. A majestic and magical place that immediately touches your heart. It bares witness to both the best and the worst of human character and behaviour. Outside, the memorial pool/fountain and waterfall is immediately captivating, thanks both to the tranquility it exudes and the words that are carved into the black stone: "Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream" (Martin Luther King). On the round, smooth plateau in front, you plunge your fingers into the cool water that runs over it and trace contours of the text etched below the surface. It recalls the history of the civil rights movement at its most active time, from the mid-50s to the late 60s and read the names of some of the people who lost their lives in the struggle to change laws and attitudes. The memorial conjures sentiments of respect, pride and hope.

As you enter the building behind, the Civil Rights Memorial Center, you are immediately confronted with the stark fact that the civil rights movement is not a thing of the past, but an ongoing battle. There is a security post and you must forfeit your bag to an x-ray machine and yourself to the metal detector. While this is not unusual in today's world - and certainly not uncommon to tourist attractions in the US - the reason for all of the concern is a concern. The center continues to receive all sorts of threats from hate groups and some years ago, one of their main sponsors was burnt down. Very, very sad.

Once inside, the story of the men, women and children who were embroiled in the fight for equal rights continues. The tales of the 40 individuals commemmorated on the memorial outside is told through film and displays. Their strength of character is most evident in their ability to stick to their pledge of non-violent protest, whatever came their way. Montgomery is where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger, an act which resulted in her arrest and instigated a year-long boycott of the buses by the black population of the area, crippling the city's bus system and leading to a Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation on the buses illegal.

One of the other main "events" that is recalled is the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965:

'when Jimmie Lee Jackson was show and killed by Alabama state troopers on February 26, 1965, angry protesters wanted to march to Montgomery to confront Governor Wallace. On March 7, they embarked on a peaceful march from Selma to the state Capitol. Alabama State Troopers brutally beat and tear-gassed the marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and forced them to turn back. Two days later, they tried again. This time led by Martin Luther King, the marchers reached the same line of state troopers, knelt, prayed and turned around. Within days, US District Court Judge Frank Johnson ordered Governor Wallace to protect the marchers with state troopers and national guardsmen. On March 21, they left again with the armed protection. They marched for 4 days and arrived at the state Capitol. The march led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act on July 9, 1965".

We also visited Selma for the morning to visit the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute there (a quiet, unassuming museum with little tourist traffic but an excellent series of displays outilining the events leading up to and following from the march), so we saw drove along the route that the marchers took and saw the bridge where things went so horribly wrong on their first attempt. Both Selma and Montgomery's memorials/museums provide a good sense of how many people were involved in the boycotts, the sit-ins, the marches and the protests and offered an insight into some of the personal stories and senseless deaths. Absolutely a testiment to both the best and the worst of human nature.
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