From Civil War to Civil Rights
We were the city cousins. Back then, in the early ’60s, Montgomery, Alabama was really just a big town, and my family lived in a docile old neighborhood called Dalraida with its azaleas and all flavors of protestant churches. Our family was not a tribe of urban sophisticates.
But if you hail from the sleepy, peanut-farming town of Colquitt down on the Georgia-Florida line, everything’s relative. Montgomery was a city. And our Georgia relatives liked to visit.
We moved there when I was seven, in time to watch all the white men grow beards and the white women don petticoats and dress like Scarlett for the national centennial celebration of the Civil War. There were endless festivities around the re-release of “Gone With the Wind.”
Whenever first cousins came for their extended summer stays, Mother, a former teacher, entertained with one eye on education. I believe she was more than a little frustrated in her homemaker role, having once had her own classroom and paycheck. So hosting young cousins was a little like teaching, or at least entailed a lot of field trips.
We did free things, mostly, including touring the state Department of Archives and History and the First White House of the Confederacy where Jefferson Davis lived while in Montgomery. Mother called it the Little White House and loved the ornate furnishings.
We ate spaghetti in the basement cafeteria of the capitol of George C. Wallace and drove around the grounds of the Methodist college, Huntingdon.
And there was Hank’s grave. We always took them there.
Across the Bridge
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King’s church, was a block from the capitol where we ate our noodles and looked at the bronzed spot where Jeff Davis had been sworn in as President of the Confederacy. Rosa Parks had been arrested a few more blocks away. The famous Montgomery bus boycott she had launched meant black citizens had pounded the same streets we were holiday strolling. Mother never mentioned that.
History was being made in real time as we ducked and covered in our quiet suburban house and avoided downtown most of the time, except when we had company. Especially after 1965.
The Selma to Montgomery March was on the Huntley-Brinkley every night for a month or so when I was 12. Bloody Sunday went down on a bridge named for a U.S. senator from Selma, Edmund Pettus. He’d been a decorated Confederate officer in the war, a Klan leader during Reconstruction and dead a long while when they named the bridge for him.
There’s been a recent effort to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge something else. But, then, you’d have to rename much of the South if you exorcised all segregationists.
The National Park Service Interpretive Center is at the other end. And also the town of Selma, which, if I may speak truthfully, looks more tired than sleepy. It is full of empty storefronts and bored young people, no different from dozens of other towns in Alabama’s depressed Black Belt.
The movie “Selma” must have brought excitement, and the 50th anniversary last year of the march when the President came to town. But now the movie stars and heavyweight politicians have gone away. The town is quiet. And most of us who walk the bridge are just passing through.
Selma, of course, is on the official Alabama Civil Rights Trail, and any mother bent on educating her children, white or black, cannot ignore sites that UNESCO World Heritage Sites recognizes, or places with names so familiar they are part of our national subconsciousness.
From Civil War to Civil Rights, the long, slow march of awareness stumbles on.