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 white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast. Away from the water’s edge, agriculture, dominated by pecans, peaches and watermelons, flourishes on the gently sloping coastal plain. 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 struggles were fought.
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 terrifying threats from Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor, pickets, sit-ins and marches went forward, resulting in mass arrests. More than two thousand protesters flooded the prisons; one was Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, who wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail after being branded an extremist by local white clergymen. Connor’s use of high-pressure fire 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. The three murderers were eventually jailed, though it took until 2002. Across the road, Kelly Ingram Park, site of the 1960s rallies, has a Freedom Walk diagramming the events through sculptures of menacing dogs, water cannons and youthful protestors. Next door, the admirable Civil Rights Institute, 520 16th St (bcri.org), is an affecting attempt to interpret the factors that led to such violence and racial hatred. 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.
In the 1950s, 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 “rolling churches” carried those who lived farther away. 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. 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 transport to be illegal.