Gain a better understanding of the African American Experience and its impacts today – Tour Montgomery, Alabama
“This past remains a painful truth for all who lived it. Rather than be ignored or denied, it must be acknowledged and its impact understood in order to reconcile our collective history.” – marble slabs display at Kress
Gain a better understanding of the African American Experience in the south – and its impacts today, on a tour of Montgomery, Alabama. There are 10 stops on the Civil Rights Trail in Montgomery, a new museum, memorial, and statue of Rosa Parks, plus much more.
Friends Renita, Valerie and I started out on foot in the downtown area, with Jake from Tours by Locals. The day was sunny and our moods lighthearted. We stopped at the former Kress store (1929) where we saw marble slabs engraved with the markings colored and white. These words once stood above two water fountains. Today, they provide a symbol of Jim Crow Laws in effect in the South during that time.
Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955 – 1956)
Rosa Parks (1913-2005) is the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” Her name and image is omnipresent in downtown Montgomery. Look up, across the street from Kress store, and see her picture hanging in the window of the department store where she worked. Or pose for a picture with her statue on the corner near her bus stop.
The Rosa Parks Museum is down the street near the place where police arrested her on Dec 1, 1955. The bus driver asked Rosa to move to allow a White passenger to sit, even though she was sitting in a seat assigned to colored people by city ordinance. Rosa refused and the quote in the window near her picture explains why.
“The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” -Rosa Parks
Rosa Parks’ actions sparked the Mntgomery Bus Boycott and 40,000 African Amercans refused to ride the busses. Tensions led to violence and finally, after 381 days, the courts rulled bus segregation unconstitutional. It was the first large scale demonstration against segregation in the US. In the meantime, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr emerged as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. In retaliation, segregationists bombed the parsonage where Dr. King lived. Now, at the Dexter Parsonage Museum, a plaque indicates where the bomb exploded.
Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March (1965)
The footprints of giants are on the street in front of the Capitol in Montgomery. They represent 2000 people who participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March. State Troopers brutally attacked the marchers when they crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge on the first attempt, known as Bloody Sunday.
Valerie, Renita, and Jake standing in the footsteps of 2000 giants.
With National Guard protection, the marchers reached the Capitol in Montgomery five days after they started on March 21th, 1965. There, Dr. King delivered the Voting Rights speech to the Governor, titled “How Long; Not Long”. Congress passed Voting Rights Act on the heels of the Civil Rights Act passed just a few months before.
Reverend Dr. King directed the Bus Boycott from his office at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. The church is a National Historic Landmark and on the tentative list for status as a UNESCO cultural heritage site.
The Equal Justice Initiative is a nonprofit organization that created the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. They tell the history of the African American experience in the South and its impacts today, in meticulously researched detail.
The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration
The experience is visceral and at times overwhelming.
Our moods changed from light to heavy-hearted as we entered the Legacy Museum. There, just inside the door, are lifesize images of tormented slaves, each in a holding pen awating auction. The location of the museum is not far from the area where slaves awaited auction in the same manner during the times of slavery.
As you walk close to the images, they come to life and provide first-person narrations of their plight.
The first image sings spirituals, deftly providing a heartbreaking account of the hardships of slavery through songs.
The next section of the museum shows the historical African American experience in the South, from Kidnapping (slavery), Terror (lynching violence), Segregation (Jim Crow Laws), to mass incarceration (War on Drugs). The museum uses technology and imagery to dispaly a massive and easily accessable amount of information, exposing the full depth and breadth of each period.
One image shows the face of terror, a linching event where thousands of people attend, including the entire family. Continue through the museum, and sit at a booth that replicates the visitation area of a prision. Pick up the reciever there and talk to an inmate. The prisoner’s image appears as real as the stories they tell.
Visit the the EJI Gift Shop, Café, and Book Store located next to the Museum. Purchase concise reports of each period of the African American experience in the South as outlined in the museum and other books and materials.
National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Our hearts were heavy as we continued to the The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Yet the lifesize sculpture at the entrance plunged us into greater depths of meloncholy. There was the life size sculpture “Nkyinkyim Installation” by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. The name is from a proverb. It’s related to the journey of the ancestors, where they are from and the twists and turns of the art installation documenting their journey.
With expressions of terror, slaves are coffled in chains. Their posture indicates a heart-wrenching woe.
Walking uphill, as if going to view a lynching, displayed for all to see, we begin to encounter row after row of hanging stelai (slabs). Each slab represents each county in the States where lynchings occurred and the names of people lynched there.
The patina of the slabs is like blood and water running over the concrete below is like tears.
Across the street, the Peace and Justice Memorial Center holds the documentation of over 4000 souls represented by the hanging slabs, and the list is growing.
Lana Pajdas writes “almost every museum has at least one sad story to tell.”
The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice have thousands of sad stories to tell.
At the end of the day, our guide showed us more historic sites, including his alma mater, Alabama State University. The inspirational atmosphere of Montgomery lifted our spirits. The streets sparkled and structures invited us to explore. The downtown area is combination of new and historic architecture that intermingles in a way that invites curiosity. Even the restaurants and coffee shops are connected to the spirit of remembering the past with a positive outlook towards the future. We stopped for a late night cup of coffee at Prevail.
Prevail Union Montgomery Craft Coffee features the best drip coffee with a quote that inspires their name.
“man will not merely endure, he will prevail…because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion, sacrifice and endurance” – William Faulkner
About Jake at Tours by Locals
Jake is a child of the Civil Rights Movement and was a participant in the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March. He was raised in Lowndes County, the site of two of the most violent acts of the Civil Rights Movement. Gunmen murdered Mrs. Viola Liuzzo and Jonathan Daniels on seperate occasions while they participated in Voting Rights activities. Jake’s unique historical perspective comes from his participation in mass meetings and protests that registered Blacks to vote.
“Montgomery is a city that has been peculiarly touched by the great events of American history. The Southern Confederacy was formed here that set in motion our nation’s bloodiest cataclysm, the American Civil War.”
A tour of Montgomery, Alabama leads to a better understanding of the African American experience in the South – and its impacts today. The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice continue to seek and present the truths uncovered by dilligent research. It up to all of us to learn, reflect, and educate.
Tours by Locals enhances the experience by providing knowledgeble guides with an historical perspective and they also know the best places to eat.
These local Montgomery restaurants offer some of the best food we’ve had anywhere.
- Mama’s Sack Lunches, best place for anything, exceedingly good
- Cahawba House, best place for jams, jellies, and honey
- Wintzell’s Oyster House
- Capitol Oyster Bar & Grill, great food overlooking the Alabama River and features the best blues singers
Renita Berry, Col, USA Retired, served in the South Carolina National Guard for 35 years. Her distinguished career includes deployments to Bosnia and Kosovo. She served in positions as Brigade Commander and State Logistics Officer before retiring. Renita is the Director of the Forensic Services Laboratory at Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.
Valerie Webb is married and the mother of two beautiful daughters. She is an analyst who enjoys photography, reading, crafting and traveling with family and friends. She gratuated from Benedict College and then earned an MBA from Strayer University. Valerie is a motivator, a change agent for improving and encouraging others to find joy in everything around them.
We didn’t know what to expect in Montgomery and almost didn’t go. An angry mob crashed into the US Capitol just nine days before our visit. Police in state capitols around the country were preparing for violence. Plus, infections from the COVID-19 virus was on the rist. But, we had hired a guide and also followed guidelines to protect ourselves and others from the virus.
It was dark when we checked in our hotel. The desk clerk assured us that the streets were safe and we walked downtown to dinner. Montgomery was peaceful and beautiful, particularly at night. Renita summed up the experience with this remark.
“The city has gracefully embraced a very dark history and offers the world a chance to embrace it too.” – Renita Berry
For more stories about cultural experiences and history go to:
- A New Beginning in Ajijic, Mexico
- Immersion in Hawaiian Culture and History on a visit to Oahu
- Ybor City – Tampa’s Cigar Heritage
- Colorful Cooking Experience in Bo-Kaap
- Mexico – A Magical Inland Visit
The Equal Justice Initiative had specific objectives when it set out to build the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Included in these are “truth telling, reflection, and education.” Friends Renita, Valerie, and I found that truth telling at these two sites is accompanied by a range of emotions from disbelief, sadness, outrage, and an attempt to see the way forward.
The way forward almost always involves reflection and almost always ends up with more questions than answers. I began to ask myself about my own experiences and personal connection to race relations as I was growing up in my own family, community, schools, and at work. And what role did historical context play? What were the local community, State, and National events or influences that shaped my perception of race relations during these times?
The US Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954, however, my own schools in Ninety Six, SC. didn’t desegregate until 1973, 19 years later. Yet, neither my close nit group of high school friends nor I remember that we had any significant race problems during desegregation. There surely had to have been resistance, perhaps on both sides, for us to have waited 19 years to desegregate.
Also, I think about my early years in the workforce. I started working in textile mills when I was sixteen and don’t remember any African American there. Like many areas in South Carolina and in the South, textile mills were still a very large part of the economy in 1970. There was almost nowhere else to work. So, where did African Americans work?
When I was 21 and fresh out of college and US Army Basic Combat Training, I began working in law enforcement. I went from patrol officer in my hometown (Ninety Six, SC) to county deputy (jailer, Greenwood, SC), to educator. I taught at Piedmont Technical College (Greenwood, SC), with one of my teaching duties at Greenwood Correctional Center teaching Adult Basic Education (ABE). What were my experiences with race relations during these jobs?
I do remember that my class at Greenwood Correctional Center was mostly African American (one room school house in the back of the Wardens office). That’s telling, considering that my class was mandatory for inmates who wanted to learn carpentry and didn’t have a high school diploma or equivalency.
A highlighted statistic caught my attention in the Legacy Museum.
“In 1972 there were 300,000 people incarcerated in the US. Today there are 2.3 million.”
This statistic is attributed to the Nixon Administration’s War on Drugs, which is alleged to have come from the “desire to criminalize African Americans.” This allegation comes from Journalist Shane Bauer and is disputed by others. You can read more in his book American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment. It’s an in depth look at private prison systems.
However, the number of African American incarcerations is higher, which coincides with my observation while teaching at the Greenwood Correctional Center. See the (prison policy initiative).
Another good book that sheds light on conscious or unconscious racial biases is a personal account by former Soldier and head of the West Point history department, Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause, by Ty Seidule.
Read on to learn what Renita, Valarie, and I experienced in Montgomery, Alabama.