A stroll through Montgomery

Civil Rights sights now outnumber the Civil War’s in Alabama’s capital

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by Elizabeth Hayes

Visitors to Montgomery, Ala., are often struck by the close juxtaposition of Civil War and Civil Rights sights. What surprised me on a recent visit is how Civil Rights sights outnumber those of the “War Between the States.” You can glean a real history lesson by spending a few days poking around downtown.

The city was, after all, once home to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March were significant milestones in the movement for racial equality. But a decade ago, the city didn’t boast nearly as many commemorations of Civil Rights struggles as it does today. Historical markers noting events in the 1950s and 1960s seem to have popped up everywhere.

In fact, you need at least two days to do justice to both historical eras — and more time if you plan to take in a play at the Shakespeare Festival, check out the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and tour Old Alabama Town and the Hank Williams Museum. And did I mention the lovely ballpark on the riverfront where the AA Southern League baseball Biscuits play, a sparkling example of historical reuse?

I stuck to a Civil War-Civil Rights theme and started my self-guided tour with the First White House of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis lived in the Italianate home for only three months before the capital was moved to Richmond. The house is full of gilt mirrors, gold-framed portraits, chandeliers, and rosewood and mahogany furniture. But the real draw for Civil War buffs are the mundane artifacts, such as Davis’ slippers, valise, pipe and smoking jacket.

I decided to bypass the Alabama state Capitol, although this impressive neoclassical edifice served as a significant backdrop in both eras. Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederate States on its west portico in 1861, and Gov. George Wallace stood on the same spot nearly century later and declared, “Segregation forever.”

I strolled instead to the Civil Rights Memorial and placed my hand in the water flowing over the black granite table that is carved with the names of those who died in the Civil Rights struggle. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which sponsors the Maya Lin-designed memorial, has also created interactive exhibits and a film chronicling the lives of the martyrs, including Emmet Till and Medgar Evers.

It was time for lunch, so confronted with few options within walking distance, I ducked into Chris’ Hog Dogs, which has been around since 1917 on Dexter Avenue. I later learned that a lunch trolley circulates throughout downtown for state workers. I highly recommend hopping on and heading to Martha’s Place for some amazing home cooking — unless you have a passion for hot dogs served in an old timey diner setting. The place was packed, but I had no trouble finding a small booth.

I wanted to catch the 1 p.m. tour of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where King preached from 1954 to 1960, but first I walked down the avenue that once embodied a vibrant shopping district. These days, unfortunately, many of the storefronts are vacant, a victim of the city’s eastward migration.

But there remain historical points of interest. A plaque stands in front of the Winter Building, where a telegram was sent authorizing Gen. P.T.G. Beauregard to fire on Fort Sumter, the first military action of the Civil War. And a lovely fountain brackets one end of the avenue, facing the state Capitol at Court Square, on the site of an artesian well and antebellum slave auctions. Local legend also has it that the Montgomery native Zelda Fitzgerald, the free-spirited wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, once skinny-dipped in the fountain. (The Montgomery home where the Fitzgeralds lived briefly is also open to the public.)

My church tour began with a short film covering Dexter Avenue’s history, starting many years before King arrived. Our guide painstakingly explained each person and event depicted in a mural in the church’s basement before leading us into the sanctuary. Afterward, I hopped in my car and drove to Dexter Avenue’s parsonage at 303 S. Jackson St. and saw another short film.

The real highlight, of course, was walking through the modest home where the King family once lived. Of all the day’s sights, I found it the most intimate and immediate. Even though some of the furnishings were reproductions, you could imagine the family relaxing in the living room and King drinking coffee in the kitchen or working in his study.

I saved the Rosa Parks Museum for later in the week. The museum itself also offers a novel take on the history film. Images of actors are projected on a city bus to re-enact the evening in 1955 when Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger and was arrested, sparking the boycott and court-ordered bus desegregation. The museum contains framed historical documents — including arrest reports — and interactive video exhibits and oral histories of Montgomery residents discussing the Civil Rights years. I especially enjoyed the Children’s Wing, where you sit in a time machine/bus and view historical footage and re-enactments of events from pre-Civil War, through Reconstruction to Jim Crow.

As I walked out blinking into the sun, I thought of those regular folks featured in the videos and felt better for knowing their stories.

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