Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Civil Rights Bus Tour - Day 3, July 13, 2011

We arrived in steamy Montgomery, the capital city of Alabama, on Tuesday evening. We had amazing accommodations at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Montgomery that made our two night stay very comfortable. My room window provided a great view of the Alabama River (above). The Alabama River is one big reason Montgomery grew in the 1820s and 1830s and became the capital of the state in the 1840s. Cotton grown in the interior of the state was often brought to Montgomery where it was traded and transported down this waterway to Mobile (Cotton City), which was probably only second to New Orleans as a port of export for the fluffy fiber that fed the state's economy.

The first stop in our site-packed Wednesday was not originally on our agenda, but our lead scholar, Dr. Gerald Smith suggested adding it due its great historical significance to the city and the Civil Rights Movement.

Holt Street Baptist Church was where the Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized and where a young Dr. King was chosen as the leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association. On December 5, 1955, Dr. King made his debut in the movement. That night the church was filled to overflowing as he addressed the crown with a short speech in what was originally intended to be a one day boycott. It ended up lasting 381 days.

Today Holt Street Baptist Church is empty and is quickly decaying. The congregation has moved into a different and more commodious location, but fortunately, does have intentions on preserving this historic landmark.

Our second stop was a view of the King parsonage on South Jackson St. It was here on January 31, 1956, that a bomb exploded that did not injury King's wife Coretta and young daughter Yolanda. Montgomery blacks rallied to the house and vowed revenge, but King advised to continue in their pursuit of a nonviolent strategy. The house was damaged again over a year later when a another bomb was planted near the front porch. Again, fortunately, no one was physically harmed.

Our next stop, the Civil Rights Memorial, commemorates 40 men and women who died advocating for civil rights between the years 1954 and 1968. The memorial, pictured above, was designed by Mya Lin, who also designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. The 40 names are carved on a beautiful black granite table as water constantly flows over them. The symbolism is fascinating. On the wall behind the memorial is carved words from one of Dr. King's speeches, "Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Of course a Civil Rights tour of Montgomery would not be complete without a visit to Dr. King's church, Dexter Avenue Baptist. The significance of the black churches in the Civil Rights Movement can not be overlooked was fully evident in our week long tour. As one black man during the Jim Crow Era said, "He turns to it [church] not only for his spiritual wants, but looks toward it as the center of his civilization. Here he learns the price of cotton or the date of the next circus; here is given the latest fashion plates or the announcement for candidates for justice of the peace."

After a lunch on our own we next reconvened at the Alabama state capitol building for a tour. The temperature was pushing 100 degrees at this point in the day, so I was happy to be in the air conditioned building. Our guide, an African American gentlemen who participated in the famous march from Selma to Montgomery as a young man mentioned that we were in the perfect place when I told him we had teachers that were studying "From Civil War to Civil Rights." He also explained that in his opinion there would never be a monument to the famous march on the capitol grounds because then governor George Wallace didn't allow the marchers to touch the capitol property. As the historic picture above shows the marchers made it right up to the capitol steps.

On the grounds are several tributes to the Confederacy. A huge monument to southern soldiers was erected on the grounds as well as the above monument to Jefferson Davis. Montgomery is often called the "Cradle of the Confederacy" as it was here that the Confederate government was formed, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as its president, and this building served as the first capital of the Confederacy, before it was moved to Richmond, Virginia in May of 1861.

This star marks the location on the steps of the capitol building where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated on February 18, 1861.

In the above photo our tour guide tells us why the Alabama state capitol building is the most historically significant state capitol building in the United States. I think he has a good argument!

After our visit to the capitol, we went a few blocks back west to the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station. Now, thanks to the efforts of the Alabama Historical Commission, this building is restored and protected to interpret the significant events of May 20, 1961 when the Freedom Riders attempted to integrate the public facility. Here the black and white riders were mobbed after their police protection disappeared and they were left to the mercy of their attackers who saw them as being "outside agitators."

A historic photo of Freedom Riders waiting to restart their trip.

It was at the Montgomery fountain square where seamstress Rosa Parks worked in a department store called Montgomery Fair, and outside of which, on December 1, 1955, she got on the bus and went into history. Parks, who had previously studied civil disobedience at the Highlander School in Tennessee, became the test case that civil rights lawyers were looking for. After Parks was warned to give her seat to a white person she refused and when warned that she would be arrested if she didn't move, she said, "You may do so."

A historic photo of 42 year old Rosa Parks being booked in Montgomery for refusing to give up her seat on the bus.

Parks's police finger prints are on display at the Rosa Parks Museum. It was at the museum's present location that the bus stopped and where Parks was arrested. The museum features the story of how the African American community of Montgomery worked to bring about social change. Men and women of all walks of life contributed, and even though the museum features the name of one person, it really honors all the "unsung heroes."

The Rosa Parks Museum also features a children's wing, which offers a magic time traveling bus where one goes back into time to learn where the word Jim Crow originated, as well as meet historic figures such as Homer Plessy, Harriet Tubman, Henry "Box" Brown, among others.


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