Just 250 miles from north to south, ALABAMA ranges from the fast-flowing rivers, waterfalls and lakes of the Appalachian foothills to the bayous and beaches of the Gulf Coast. Industry is concentrated in the north, around Birmingham and Huntsville, first home of the nation’s space programme, while the farmlands of middle Alabama envelop Montgomery, the state capital. Away from the French-influenced coastal strip around the pretty little town of Mobile, fundamentalist Protestant attitudes have traditionally backed right-wing demagogues, such as George Wallace, the four-time state governor who received ten million votes in the 1968 presidential election, and, more recently Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who in the summer of 2003 was suspended for not obeying a federal court order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the rotunda of the state judicial building in Montgomery. While times have moved on since the epic civil rights struggles in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma – monuments and civic literature celebrate the achievements of the campaigners, and even Wallace renounced his racist views – a visit to Alabama offers a crucial reminder of just how recently those bloody struggles were fought.Read More
Civil rights in Birmingham
Civil rights in Birmingham
In the first half of 1963, civil rights leaders chose Birmingham as the target of “Project C” (for confrontation), aiming to force businesses to integrate lunch counters and employ more blacks. Despite threats from Police Chief “Bull” Connor that there would be “blood running down the streets of Birmingham”, pickets, sit-ins and marches went forward, resulting in mass arrests. Over 2000 protesters flooded the jails; one was Dr Martin Luther King Jr, who wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail after being branded as an extremist by local white clergymen. Connor’s use of high-pressure hoses, cattleprods and dogs against demonstrators acted as a potent catalyst of support. Pictures of snarling German shepherds sinking their teeth into the flesh of schoolkids were transmitted around the world, and led to an agreement between civil rights leaders and businesses that June. Success in Birmingham sparked demonstrations in 186 other cities, which culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting racial segregation. The headquarters for the campaign, the 16th Street Baptist Church, on the corner of Sixth Avenue, was the site of a sickening Klan bombing on September 15, 1963, which killed four young black girls attending a Bible class. Two of the three murderers were eventually jailed in 2000. Across the road, run-down Kelly Ingram Park, the site of many huge rallies during the Sixties has a Freedom Walk, lined with several sculptures of protestors, but is mainly populated by panhandlers and homeless men. Nearby, the admirable Civil Rights Institute, 520 16th St (Tues–Sat 10am–5pm, Sun 1–5pm; $12; w www.bcri.org), is an affecting attempt to interpret the factors that led to such violence and racial hatred in the US. Exhibits re-create life in a segregated city, complete with a burned-out bus and heart-rending videos of bus boycotts and the March on Washington.
Civil rights in Montgomery
Civil rights in Montgomery
In the Fifties, Montgomery’s bus system was a miniature model of segregated society – as was the norm in the South. The regulation ordering blacks to give up seats to whites came under repeated attack from black organizations, culminating in the call by the Women’s Political Council for a mass boycott after seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat, stating that she was simply too tired. Black workers were asked to walk to work, while black-owned taxis carried those who lived further away for the same 10¢ fare as buses. The protest attracted huge support and the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), set up to coordinate activities, elected the 26-year-old pastor Dr Martin Luther King Jr as its chief spokesperson. Meanwhile, the laid-off white bus drivers were employed as temporary police officials. Despite personal hardships, bomb attacks and jailings, protestors continued to boycott the buses for eleven months, until in November 1956 the US Supreme Court declared segregation on public transportation to be illegal.
King remained pastor at the small brick Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, in the shadow of the capitol at 454 Dexter Ave, for a few years. The upstairs sanctuary, left much as it was during his ministry, contains his former pulpit, and you can also tour the Parsonage where King lived with his family until their move back to his hometown of Atlanta in 1960 (book tours via the website w www.dexterkingmemorial.org).One block away at the corner of Washington Avenue and Hull Street, in front of the Southern Poverty Law Center (which specializes in helping victims of racial attacks), the moving Civil Rights Memorial, designed by Maya Lin, consists of a cone-shaped black granite table. It’s inscribed with a timeline of events structured around the deaths of forty martyrs murdered by white supremacists and police; the circle ends with the assassination of Dr King. You can run your hands through the cool water that pumps evenly across it, softly touching the names while being confronted with your reflection. The wall behind, also running with water, is engraved with the quotation employed so often by Dr King: “(We will not be satisfied) until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Displays in the Civil Rights Memorial Centre (Mon–Fri 9am–4.30pm, Sat 10am–4pm; $2; w www.splcenter.org) tell the story of the campaigns. A few blocks west of the memorial, the Rosa Parks Museum, 252 Montgomery St (Mon–Fri 9am–5pm, Sat 9am–3pm; $6; w montgomery.troy.edu/rosaparks/museum/), commemorates “the mother of the civil rights movement”. Exhibits cover her life, the bus boycott and other major civil rights figures.