Civil Rights Cities: Montgomery, Alabama

February 09, 2011
by findingDulcinea Staff
Decades of history come full circle in Montgomery, Ala. The pursuit of equal rights for all people links many of the city's historic events, from the controversy over slavery that launched the Civil War, to the civil rights movement of the 20th century; the events and places of Montgomery's past and future seem destined to meet up with each other.

Starting with the Civil War

Montgomery made an early footprint on the United States just before and right at the start of the Civil War. The telegraph that ordered the first gunshots of the war came from Montgomery. After Alabama and other states seceded from the Union, Confederate leaders met here to form a new government.

The delegates who helped form the Confederacy needed a leader; Jefferson Davis was their man. He became president of the Confederate states atop the steps of the Alabama state capitol building. While in Montgomery, Jefferson and Mrs. Davis made their home in a White House—not the one many of us recognize today, but the First White House of the Confederacy. A sharp history buff will notice that there's also a White House of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., but the distinction is in the name in this instance: the First White House of the Confederacy is in Montgomery.

Inklings of the Future

Few people may realize that San Francisco’s signature streetcars did not originate there; Montgomery introduced the entire world to the first electric streetcar system in the late 1800s. Perhaps the streetcars were a sign of things to come: in 1896, the Supreme Court handed down the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, containing the notion of "separate but equal" facilities for white and African American citizens. Rather than live with segregation on a transportation system, African Americans boycotted streetcars all across the South. A few of the boycotts were quite successful.

The Bus Stops Here

It was time for a boycott again when, in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to another white passenger. Parks set tremendous forces in motion with her act of defiance that day. She was arrested for failing to adhere to the principles of segregation and it wasn't long before empty buses roamed Montgomery's streets. African Americans who supported Parks walked wherever they needed to go. "Voices of the boycott" were speaking out against the years of discrimination endured in the United States. The civil rights movement had fully begun.

Today a museum for the "mother of the civil rights movement" honors Parks for her civil disobedience that day.

Civil rights activists looked for symbolism in their protests. They marched from Selma to Montgomery, publicly—but nonviolently—displaying their desire for a redress of the crimes against them. With the help of non-discriminatory organizations such as the St. Jude Catholic Hospital, along with a brave federal judge in Montgomery, Martin Luther King Jr. was able to lead a following of 25,000 marchers to the steps of Montgomery's capitol building—many decades later on the grounds where Jefferson Davis once stood. The march brought results: President Lyndon B. Johnson would later sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a major civil rights bill that successfully made it through Congress.

Montgomery Today

Montgomery is a city with more than just an early chapter in civil rights history. Cultural festivals, theatrical performances, beautifully landscaped parks, and even a “Broadway Under the Stars” program showcase the modern, ever-changing, and trendy parts of the city. Montgomery hosts one of the 10 largest Shakespeare festivals in the world; a memorial for famed country singer Hank Williams; a Hyundai Motor Manufacturing and Assembly plant; and an Air Force base that was once the site of a flight school operated by the Wright brothers.

Today Montgomery has memorialized the men and women who stood (and some who died) for equality in the civil rights movement. The Civil Rights Memorial, created by the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Maya Lin, is the only monument of its kind. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the memorial a place to "appreciate how far the country has come in its quest for equality and consider how far it has to go."

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