I’ve arrived in Montgomery, Alabama!
Before I started my Churchill Fellowship, the only thing I knew about Alabama was Neil Young’s song of the same name. Let me tell you that after only two days in Montgomery, I’m now much better informed about Montgomery!
So back in the mid 1800s Montgomery was one of the most prominent slave trading communities in Alabama due to its geography and economy based on cotton production. Between 1808 and 1860, Montgomery grew from a population of 40,000 to more than 435,000 due to slavery.
In the 1860s Montgomery was geographically instrumental in the Civil War, and is the location of the first White House of the Confederacy. In the early days of the Confederacy, Jim Crow mandated segregation. This meant that African Americans had to use different public facilities than the ones used by white people including drinking fountains, healthcare, schools, bathrooms, and hotels. They were not allowed to vote.
This reminder of the historic injustices in Montgomery is told on signs around the town centre, many erected by the Equal Justice Initiative. (Also: check out their comprehensive racial justice timeline).
You may have already heard of Rosa Parks. At the end of a long day at work, Rosa was seated in the front “white section” of the bus on her way home. As the bus became full the driver asked her to stand and move to the “colored section” at the back because there weren’t enough seats for white people to sit down. She refused to move, so the bus driver called the cops and Rosa was arrested.
That night, the Women’s Political Council created fliers calling for a bus boycott by African Americans and distributed them the following day.
A couple of days later, Martin Luther King Jnr’s Sunday sermon included a plea for fairness and justice. He compelled his African American congregation to refuse to ride on the buses to end racial segregation.
The next day African Americans either walked to work or stayed home. This action – the Montgomery Bus Boycott – continued for over a year until the court ordered the state to desegregate the buses.
I did not realise all this happened right here in Montgomery! The Rosa Parks Museum was first on my list of places to visit and as you can probably tell, it didn’t disappoint!
Fast forward five years to 1961, when segregation on interstate buses and bus terminals was still in force. An interracial group of students were determined to continue the Freedom Ride that had been stopped due to violence in a nearby town. They sat together, defying the segregation laws. Their bus arrived at the Greyhound station in Montgomery where Klan supporters armed with baseball bats, ropes and chains were waiting. They attacked the riders, and some were left unconscious.
These are just a couple of stories from the American Civil Rights movement. There are many more. At the Civil Rights Memorial Center I learned there have been many people from all around the country who have contributed to racial justice. In the Center, I added my name to the Wall of Tolerance, committing to work for justice, equality and human rights.
Some of the pioneers like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jnr are commemorated on the Civil Rights Memorial out the front of the Center.