Day 5: Montgomery, Alabama

The halfway point between Savannah and New Orleans offered a great chance to dig into some of the most important sites in civil rights history. The main reason for our visit was to pay our respects at the Civil Rights Memorial, a monument to the martyrs of the movement, black and white alike, who paid the ultimate price in the fight for equality. The monument is a beautiful play on Martin Luther King’s quote, in Montgomery, that the work of the movement wouldn’t be done until “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”.

The interpretive centre attached to the memorial told the personal stories of those whose names are inscribed on the monument. It was immediately striking how young many of those murdered were – often in their early 20s, activists on their first organizing project to register black voters – and how often law enforcement was involved in their deaths, either directly or by handing them over to the local Klu Klux Klan gangs. The exhibits spare no detail on the violence, and you’re left with a taste of the terror that must have permeated much of the community at the time – and also a greater appreciation of the courage it would have taken to be a civil rights activist in the Deep South in the ’60s.

Our hosts for the evening were Isaiah and Johnnie Sankey at the Butterfly Inn, who get a special shout out for their incredible hospitality. The Inn is the first African-American owned B&B in Montgomery, and amazingly, it sits on the site of the first public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Isaiah indulged us in lots of political talk, while Johnnie kept us fed with her delicious soul food specialities. It was really hard to leave, but we hope they’ll pay us a visit in Ottawa one day so we can reciprocate.

Overall, while Montgomery is a town rooted in its past (both as the short-lived capital of the Confederacy, and as a battleground of the civil rights movement), those we spoke to emphasized both the progress that has been made, and the struggles yet to come – for a full rendering of accounts of America’s racial past, and newer battles like gay rights, immigration justice, and ending hate and extremism. The work of the Southern Poverty Law Center is particularly impressive in this regard – so impressive that their offices require bunker-like security to guard against attacks by white supremacist groups, even today.

The memorial marks important achievements alongside the deaths of activists and innocent bystanders.

This is the state capital. On the steps of this building, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the first president of the Confederacy, vowing to defend slavery. A century later, Governor Edward Wallace stood here and said “segregation forever”. Only months later, King led a rally of 25,000 people to these steps, and though he wasn’t allowed inside, he declared that segregation was on its deathbed.

The church where King preached before leading the civil rights movement full-time.

The Greyhound bus station where, in 1961, white mobs attacked “freedom riders” who were testing desegregation laws in the south.

Isaiah and Johnnie, our wonderful hosts.
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