Monday, June 26, 2017

Civil Rights Tour - Montgomery

After our tour of the National Civil Rights Museum, we left Memphis and headed for Montgomery, Alabama. We stayed in a beautiful old hotel just a few blocks from the capitol.
It had a marvelous old letter box in the lobby and was the only hotel I have ever stayed in that had valet parking! (There was no hotel parking at all. You pulled into a tiny driveway and handed your keys to the valet, who took the car to some mysterious location.)
Downtown Montgomery is absolutely lovely. It is full of gracious old buildings, some beautifully preserved and others in the process of renovation. There has obviously been a push for revitalization and the whole area is full of restaurants, classy bars, shops, and lofts. There are green spaces and tiny parks all over and flowers everywhere.

In the evening, people strolled around, diners lingered in sidewalk cafes, music spilled out to the street. It was delightful!

As we walked around the city center that evening and early the next morning, we also began to feel the history behind all the beauty. Montgomery has placed historical markers all over this part of the city, acknowledging famous buildings and visits by Confederate generals, but also the sites of Indian battles, slave markets, and sites of importance in the Civil Rights movement. Some of those markers are hard to read, emotionally. I was grateful to the city of Montgomery and the state of Alabama for placing those markers, both for the interesting information they contained and for the courage to face the cruel and painful parts of the past.
A block or two from our hotel was a tiny park, shady and lined with benches. The historical marker informed me that this was Rosa Parks park, created to honor the woman who is considered the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement."
I sat on a bench there, in the same spot where Rosa boarded a bus in December 1955 and refused to give up her seat. The park, and the former bus stop, look out on what was once a slave market and is now a beautiful fountain at the junction of several streets. There was a lot of history in that quiet spot.
A few blocks down from Rosa's park was a familiar building - the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, now called the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.
This was the church where Martin Luther King, Jr. was pastor from 1954 to 1960. He helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott from here. This church was the center of all of the hard and amazing work for integration and social justice that went on here in the 1950's and 1960's.
It is still a strong and vibrant congregation, with banners and signs advertising upcoming events. On the corner out front, the congregation maintains an eternal flame dedicated to Dr. King.
At the end of the next block sits the Alabama State Capitol. It is huge and imposing and very beautiful.
I had not realized how close the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was to the statehouse. They are literally neighbors. You can clearly see the steps of one building from the steps of the other. Somehow that makes the bravery of the bus boycott and protest marches even more compelling. They carried out their acts of mercy in the very shadow of a place that dealt them such cruelty.
There is an unusual crosswalk in front of the church. It's covered in a whimsical pattern of footprints, but it is a nod to another monumental event that happened in this place.
In 1965, protesters marched 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights for black people. By the time they reached the steps of the Capitol, 25,000 demonstrators filled this space.

We spent some time exploring the grounds of the Capitol, admiring the flowers, taking pictures, and letting the history wash over us.

Montgomery was a beautiful city and a place I would like to return to and explore more deeply. The history here is so deep it is almost palpable. I'd love to learn more about all that has happened here and see what changes will come next.

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