Standing in front of one of the most famous churches in America, Robert Birmingham gazes up the street to where the Alabama state capitol sits atop Goat Hill.
Birmingham is the market executive for Regions Bank and a native of Montgomery, Alabama. In front of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where a young, firebrand preacher first began changing the world, he notes his hometown’s place in history.
“The street has a lot of history,” he said. “It’s the pathway to the entire Civil Rights Movement.”
Yet it’s much more than that. Alabama’s capital city, one of the South’s first major markets, embraces all of its history. Just a few blocks away is the First White House of the Confederacy, where Jefferson Davis resided at the onset of the Civil War. But throughout this city are monuments to the trials and tribulations that followed.
In honor of Black History Month, we can’t think of a better place to spend a February day. Because our latest Good Town honors the foot soldiers and leaders who created a movement that resonates today.
Good Town Montgomery: The Birthplace of a Movement
Tired and cold after working a long shift as a seamstress, Rosa Parks wouldn’t budge from her seat on a Montgomery city bus. The day was Dec. 1, 1955, when a single act of defiance lit a match that earned the world’s attention.
Parks wasn’t physically tired. She was tired of giving in.
“There were events and court cases that got the wheels turning,” explained Donna Beisel, Director of Operations at Troy University’s Rosa Parks Museum. “But the (Montgomery Bus) Boycott got the Civil Rights Movement rolling because it brought people together, and the strategies that were successfully implemented here became the road map for the movement.
“It really is the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.”
The Jim Crow laws at the time were clear: African Americans had to move to the back of the bus to make room for whites. But Parks had enough. She was arrested, and four days later the Montgomery Bus Boycott began in earnest, drawing people together for a single cause.
Every movement needs a leader, and this one focused on a young pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, seven blocks from where Parks was arrested. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. became not only the face of the Montgomery movement but the seismic change to come.
A month later, after enduring a multitude of threats, King pondered his next move. What followed was an epiphany, a moment captured dramatically at the museum.
“He prayed and God told him to continue standing up for truth, justice and righteousness,” Beisel explained.
Housed in what used to be the Empire Theatre and now entrenched on the sprawling Troy University-Montgomery campus downtown, the 22-year-old museum draws 50,000 visitors a year, shy of its pre-pandemic peak, from all but a handful of countries. It features timelines of the boycott, interactive displays, a children’s library and a vintage city bus restored after it was found abandoned in a field.
A former seventh-grade teacher and self-described “history nerd,” Beisel is driven by her passion to share the story. The museum was sparked by an idea from former Troy trustee Lamar Huggins. Parks blessed the project, with just one caveat.
“Mrs. Parks said, ‘I don’t want the museum to be about me but about the people who came together.’ It’s really about the boycott and a legacy that should last for generations.”
Riding for Freedom
Five years after the boycott, interstate travel throughout the South remained segregated – although there had been laws passed outlawing the practice a decade before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Advocates for change had been silently fighting Jim Crow for years.
En route to spring training, prior to breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, Jackie Robinson was denied his first-class airline seat in Texas and forced to bus to Jacksonville, Florida, instead. That same year, 1947, a group from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) began taking test rides to fight for equal treatment.
And in 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a young law student for trespassing at a Richmond, Virginia, bus terminal. His crime? Sitting in the whites-only section of the station’s restaurant. The law student, Bruce Boynton, was headed home to Selma, Alabama. He merely ordered a cheeseburger, just as he had in integrated lunchrooms in Washington, D.C., where he attended Howard University. But the arrest became another lightning rod in the movement, and his attorney, Thurgood Marshall (later the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice), took the appeal all the way to the highest court in the land, successfully arguing that segregated interstate travel and facilities were unconstitutional.
A year later, CORE began sending bus riders through the Deep South, testing the existing laws. With a mix of black and white passengers of all ages, the trip was relatively peaceful and uneventful until the first bus crossed the Georgia-Alabama state line.
As the Greyhound and Trailways buses entered Alabama, they were met in Anniston and Birmingham by violent mobs who not only attacked the Freedom Riders and some uninvolved passengers but also escalated the attacks by firebombing one of the buses. Miraculously, the Freedom Riders survived these brutal assaults and still wanted to continue the journey.
However, because of the violence, the CORE riders were forced to halt the bus trip and fly onto New Orleans, their intended destination. Days later, a group of students from Nashville came to Birmingham to continue the Freedom Rides on to Montgomery. Gov. John Patterson promised Attorney General Robert Kennedy there would be protection, yet law enforcement escorting the bus pulled away at the city limits. When the bus pulled into the Montgomery Greyhound terminal, another angry mob descended on the vehicle. Again, without police protection, a violent riot ensued.
“They were met by a mob of hundreds, armed with baseball bats, lead pipes, bricks and tire irons,” said Dorothy Walker, site director at the Freedom Rides Museum. “John Lewis was hit on the head with a Coke crate, the metal edge digging a deep gash.”
The Freedom Rides Museum, a site of the Alabama Historical Commission, is housed in Montgomery’s historic Greyhound bus station. Walker may be one of the most knowledgeable historians on this leg of the Civil Rights movement.
In this space, she shows how even architecture played a role in segregation by directing Black people who came to the terminal away from the more expansive whites-only section to cramped, crowded facilities in the back. A bricked-in wall shows where the “Coloreds Only” entrance once stood near the side of the building.
A timeline shows the step-by-step story while an interactive marker details where the riders came from across the country. Included in the Alabama section is the Petway family – a minister father and his two young adult children – who tested the interstate travels laws at airports.
“There are so many stories of courage and commitment,” Walker said. “Our goal is to not only provide the history of the movement, but an understanding of the architecture of segregation. Back then, the majority of bus riders were Black, but they had smaller facilities that were inconsistently heated and cooled and often exposed to the elements, assuming those facilities were available at all.”
A 2020 movie, Son of the South, chronicles the Freedom Rides and their violent arrival in Montgomery, a scene frighteningly recreated on film outside the museum.
“As Americans, this is about our history – the good, the bad and the ugly,” Walker said.
‘The Hub of the Movement’
Four years later, the fight for equality had moved on to voting rights, culminating in the Selma to Montgomery March, led again by Dr. King. But the battle began even before Bloody Sunday.
“The real story in Montgomery was the student campaign for voting rights,” explained Dr. Howard Robinson, the associate director of the Levi Watkins Learning Center on the Alabama State University campus. “The campaign, which began in 1962, was dying down when Dallas County leaders called in Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to revie the movement.”
With hundreds of students from Alabama State University and surrounding high schools, “Central Alabama became the hub of the movement. Everyone was here – James Forman, executive director of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Dr. King, John Lewis – making this the epicenter.”
Located on campus, right next to the sparking 26,500-seat football stadium, the Montgomery Interpretative Center honors the voting rights movement and the famous march, and is part of the National Parks Service’s Civil Rights Trail.
ASU’s connections go deeper than he students. Professor Jo Ann Robinson was president of the Women’s Political Council and played not only a role in the voting rights movement but helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott beginning the night Rosa Parks was arrested.
“What’s critical about Montgomery is how the Montgomery Improvement Association created a form of protest that sparked the movement,” Robinson said. “And the movement centered on non-violent, direct activism that was church-based and ministerial led. They brought in Dr. King because of his oratory skills – and the fact he was basically a newcomer unaffiliated with other clergy in town.”
The Selma to Montgomery March led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which brought the movement full circle.
But the world of ASU is not limited to the interpretative center. At the entrance to campus sit two restored homes – one that belonged to Civil Rights icon Dr. Ralph David Abernathy and the second to crooner Nat King Cole, a Montgomery native.
“One hundred years ago, in 1923, Nat King Cole’s family leaves Montgomery and heads to Chicago, where he became part of the great migration from the South,” said Je’lon Alexander, a member of the ASU faculty. “By restoring this house, we want to provide a better understanding of his early life.”
The Stuff of Legends
From “Unforgettable” to “Route 66,” Nat King Cole’s smooth-as-wine vocals entranced millions throughout his career, crossing over to become a favorite of everyone. But even after his death, the hits kept coming – notably, his posthumous duets on “Unforgettable” and “When I Fall in Love” with daughter Natalie Cole.
But Montgomery’s musical history encompasses so much more, spanning generations and genres.
Before Toni Tennille discovered “Muskrat Love,” she earned local fame as a singer at Sidney Lanier High School and Auburn University. Before he penned “Country Roads Take Me Home,” John Denver attended junior high school in Montgomery while his father was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base. Meanwhile, Tommy Shaw started as a rocker at a local bowling alley lounge before headlining Styx and Damn Yankees.
Country music sensation Jamey Johnson and blues sensation Clarence Carter also hailed from Montgomery.
And the songs … “Seven Bridges Road,” made famous by the Eagles was an ode to winding Woodley Road and penned by Steve Young. Alan Jackson was inspired to write “Midnight in Montgomery,” while John Prine created the equally memorable “Angel from Montgomery.”
And then there was Hank.
The man who crafted songs that took country music to a global audience came to fame in Montgomery and is buried at Oakwood Cemetery. In the short time before his sudden death at age 29, Hank Williams created 55 Top 10 hits. That doesn’t include “There’s a Tear in My Beer,” the duet Hank Jr. sang with his daddy – 30-plus years after Hank Sr. passed.
But Montgomery’s deep history with art extends beyond music to the Bard himself.
The Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF) is in the middle of its 51st season – the last 46 at a stunning campus in East Montgomery that features multiple theaters, the Blount Cultural Park, Shakespeare Garden, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and pastoral walking trails.
It’s in honor of the greatest playwright of all time. While Shakespeare did make a pretty big splash at Stratford-upon-Avon, his association with Montgomery is approaching the length of his legendary life in England.
As ASF Development Director Eve Loeb shows us around, the cast from the upcoming production of “The Tempest” takes a rehearsal break in an outdoor courtyard. As Loeb leads us into the Festival theater, set designers create a ship wreck on stage for the play.
While there’s also a Shakespearean nod to every season, the ASF also focuses on groundbreaking work, often with equality in mind. The company closed out the 2022 season with “Jubilee,” a critically acclaimed acapella musical focused on the story of the Fisk Jubilee singers, who toured the U.S. and Europe in 1871 to raise money for their financially strapped university back in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I grew up here, went to college here and chose to live here,” Robert Birmingham said as we get ready to leave. “I love everything about Montgomery – the history, the music, the arts. And I believe the best is yet to come.”