Montgomery (19 to 21 January 2024)

The last stop on our road trip around the south was the city of Montgomery.

When the Southern states seceded from the Union in 1861, Montgomery was chosen as the provisional capital of the newly formed Confederate States of America.  President Jefferson Davis governed from here until the capital was moved to Richmond, Virginia.  The ‘First White House of the Confederacy’ was a modest one compared to its namesake in Washington DC.

Inside it’s practically a shrine to President Davis and a stunning example of revisionist history.  There’s no reference to Davis as a slave owner, or to slavery as a cause of the Civil War.  And despite initially being blamed by his own side for the defeat, over time his reputation was rehabilitated.  Apparently “it is one of the most amazing feats in history that he fashioned out of it [the Confederacy] a fighting force that kept the North at bay for four long years during which time victory was almost in sight on more than one occasion”.

Ironically, it’s practically around the corner from the Dexter Avenue Parsonage, the home of Martin Luther King Jnr from 1954 to 1960.

It was during this time King Jnr spearheaded the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

In 1955, laws mandated segregation on Montgomery’s city buses.  Whites at the front, African Americans at the back.  African Americans could sit in the middle but had to vacate their seat if a white person wanted to sit there.

On 1 December 1955, African American seamstress Rosa Parks was seated in the middle section.  A white man boarded and the driver ordered the riders in that row to move.  Ms Parks, an active organiser for the NAACP, refused and was promptly arrested.

The NAACP had been looking to challenge segregation on the buses.  Ms Parks was perfect for a test case.  A model citizen in good employment, well liked in her community.

75% of city bus users were African American.  On the night of Ms Parks’ arrest, a call went out, urging the community to boycott the buses for one day.  Led by King Jnr, protestors demanded bus riders be seated on a first-come, first-sit basis, all riders be treated with respect and the city begin employing black drivers.

The one day boycott was hugely supported by the African American community but the city refused the requests for action.  Ms Parks was convicted of violating the city’s segregation ordinances and fined.  The community voted to continue the boycott.  Buses ran virtually empty.  When sympathetic taxi drivers began driving people for the cost of a bus fare, they were fined too.

The bus boycott gained national attention.  Shoes came flooding in for boycotters who often only owned one pair.  The boycott continued for a remarkable 382 days.  Over that time, King Jnr and 87 other boycott leaders and car owners who were car-pooling were arrested.  King Jnr’s home was bombed.

Bus companies almost went broke but the city only caved in when the US Supreme Court finally ruled that the city’s bus segregation ordinances were in breach of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

Although she wasn’t the first to be arrrsted for refusing to give up their seats on the buses, Rosa Parks is the most recognised of those whose act of defiance spearheaded national change.  There’s a small museum dedicated to her, and she’s honoured with a statue on the site of the bus stop where she boarded the bus.

The Supreme Court had already ruled that segregation in interstate buses was in breach of the interstate commerce provisions of the Constitution, but the Southern states continued the practice anyway.

In 1961, the Freedom Riders set out to change this.  Groups of mixed white and African American university students left Washington DC with the intention of riding interstate buses all the way to New Orleans.

The first ride proceeded without great difficulty as far as Alabama, where one bus was burned and the riders on the second bus were beaten unconscious by members of the KKK on arrival in Anniston.  In Birmingham, Freedom Riders were attacked and a bus bombed.  We saw the bus in the museum there.

The Governor reluctantly deployed a contingent of Highway Patrolmen to protect the next bus on its journey from Birmingham to Montgomery but the patrolmen abandoned it at the city limits and on arrival at Montgomery bus terminal, riders were attacked with baseball bats and iron pipes while local police stood by.

The following night, Martin Luther King Jnr and others were speaking at a church in support of the Freedom Riders when a mob of 3,000 angry whites attacked.   City law enforcement didn’t do much.   The attendees were trapped inside and the ugliness only simmered down after Federal Attorney General Robert F Kennedy threatened to send in the National Guard.

Freedom Rides continued.  Another small step on the road to equality.   The former Greyhound Bus Terminal is now a museum documenting the history of the Freedom Rides and the desegregation of the Montgomery bus terminal.

And in Australia, the Freedom Riders inspired the 1965 Freedom Ride in NSW which aimed to bring attention to the social and legal discrimination suffered by indigenous Australians.

Martin Luther King Jnr continued his campaign for equality including leading the historic Selma to Montgomery Voting Marches in 1965.   Protestors set out to march along the 54km highway between the two cities as part of a campaign supporting the right of African Americans to vote.  Although technically entitled to enrol, State laws designed specifically to disentitle African Americans were rife, those seeking to enrol were harassed and workers registering African American voters were threatened.

The first march became known as Bloody Sunday when Alabama state troopers forcibly dispersed the marchers with whips, nightsticks and tear gas not long after they left Selma.  As with other such incidents, television footage of the brutality garnered massive support for the cause.

A second march was abandoned in the face of certain violence.  But six days later, President Lyndon Johnson went on national television, supporting the marchers and declaring “their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negros, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice”.

A third march attracted 20,000 walkers who completed the intended route, protected by US Army and National Guard troops ordered by President Johnson.  They were met by 25,000 supporters on the steps of the State Capital in Montgomery.

And the publicity was a major contributor to the passage of the Voting Rights Act which banned literacy tests and several other measures used by States to disenfranchise African Americans.

And now Montgomery is home to what has been described as one of the most powerful museums of Black history in the US.

The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration presents African American history from slavery, through the Jim Crow era of legally codified segregation, discrimination and lynchings, to the racial disparities evident in America’s justice system today.

On the site of a former slave warehouse, it’s home to almost 15,000 square metres of exhibits employing state of the art technology, holograms, first person audio presentations, big screen videos, interactive booths and mini-cinemas.

Unlike most Black history museums, it doesn’t end with the good news stories of de-segregation and equal rights.  It ends with stark facts and figures about the experience of African Americans in the US justice system today: rates of incarceration, barriers to obtaining effective legal counsel, and disparity in sentencing between black and white offenders convicted of similar crimes.

The Museum is challenging, time consuming and absolutely worth coming to Montgomery for.

Photos aren’t allowed, but the museum has a second site, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, focussing on the issue of lynching.

When slavery ended with the South’s defeat in the Civil War, many States sought to re-establish white supremacy through legislation disadvantaging African Americans.  Often, they also sought to do so by condoning or sanctioning violence.

Between 1877, when the North withdrew its armed forces from the South, and 1950, more than 4,400 Southern black people lost their lives to lynching.

These were not random acts of violence.  They were a systemic and deliberate attempt to terrorise black people and re-establish white supremacy.  African Americans were lynched for such trivial acts as bumping a white person in the street, walking behind a white woman, or not calling a white man ‘Sir’.

Nor were lynchings necessarily covert acts by hooded men in the dead of night.  Many times, lynch mobs included elected officials, prominent business leaders and ordinary citizens.  Sometimes, lynchings were advertised.  At the Museum we saw a newspaper report, including photos, of 10,000 people coming to a town to see a lynching whose time and date had been advertised.  Spectators would have their photograph taken with the corpse and body parts were souvenired.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, informally known as the National Lynching Museum was erected in 2018 to recognise black victims of lynching.  805 hanging steel beams represent each of the U.S. counties where a documented lynching took place and bear the names of individuals confirmed to have been lynched in that county.   Whether intentional or not, visitors have said that from a distance they resemble hanging bodies, evoking the common lynching method.

There were many more who will never be known because deaths were not reported, or records and other proofs have been lost.

The memorial is surrounded by other outdoor sculptures.  This one represents the perhaps controversial view that the US’ history of racial inequality has created an environment of conscious and unconscious bias which contributes to racial discrimination in law enforcement and the criminal justice system, ie unwarranted police shootings of persons of colour, excessive sentencing and prison brutality.

It was all profoundly effecting and very thought provoking.

From Montgomery we headed back to New Orleans to return the car.  We had escaped the snow by the time we reached Birmingham but both there and in Montgomery it was still ridiculously cold.  So for a warm up before returning home, we popped over to Miami for some sun.  More in our next post.

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    February 14, 2024 / 2:05 am

    Great report Julie. Obviously I had heard the Rosa Parks story but you brought it to life so vividly. What a pity the Legacy Museum does not allow photos. And what a shame so few Americans have taken the time and care you and John did with this museum.

    • twotravelcats
      February 14, 2024 / 2:27 am

      Thanks, Hugh. Yes, the comment has been made that the people who most need to see this museum are the ones least likely to.

  2. Therese Bowes
    February 16, 2024 / 12:20 am

    You have convinced me Montgomery is a must stop in next USA trip – thanks for the history Julie – very sad but reminder that we stay vigilant t o support equality

  3. David Kemp
    February 25, 2024 / 1:17 pm

    After visiting The Civil Rights Museum in Memphis we were very emotional . It appears to get even more intense here in Alabama . This part of your Southern States trip is a stark reminder of the huge inequalities in The Land of the Free. Always learn something new reading your blogs . Thanks

    • twotravelcats
      February 28, 2024 / 12:00 am

      Thanks, David. We hadn’t intended for it to be a Civil Rights trip but very glad it ended up that way. We learned a lot and yes, it brought into focus how far there is still to go.

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