Visiting Montgomery, Alabama

I want to sell all of my belongings and move to Montgomery, Alabama.

Montgomery expanded my heart.

I visited over Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend and plan to go back next year. I had been wanting to go to the “Lynching Museum,” officially known as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the corresponding Legacy Museum. The visit was more than I could have imagined. If everyone in America visited the Legacy Museum, we would not have the problems we do today.

The Memorial opened in April 2018. It is a memorial to the more than 4,000 people lynched in race killings throughout America. That is, these are recorded lynchings, as there were certainly many more. The outdoor memorial has 600 steel columns for each of the counties where a lynching was recorded. It was chilling to walk past Chatham County, North Carolina, for example, and see the many people who were lynched there, note the years, and think about the families who are still dealing with the aftermath of those killings in one way or the other.

The Equal Justice Initiative envisioned and established the Memorial and the Legacy Museum a few blocks over downtown. What commitment to healing they had in wanting the Memorial to extend beyond Montgomery. There are 600 duplicate columns outside of the Memorial waiting to be claimed by the counties they denote. I am going to call the Wake County manager’s office to pursue having that pillar moved here…

There is an area outside of the Memorial dedicated to the women of Montgomery’s bus boycott. I wish I had taken some pictures, it’s a really lovely tribute to the women behind the Civil Rights movement.

The weather in Montgomery was for shit, really cold and rainy the first day I tried to visit the Memorial. It was closed for impending lightning, so I went to the Legacy Museum instead, which in hindsight, worked out well to have that context before going back to the Memorial.

The Legacy Museum, what to say. The onslaught of examples and the sheer volume of information of how we systematically dehumanized black people in America is painful to face.

This is the great lie upon which America was founded, Timothy Tyson explains, that black people are inferior to white people, without feeling for each other and with less intelligence. This is the lie we had to invent to enable the buying and selling, mistreatment and killing, of human beings. To confront this lie would mean confronting the worst parts of our nature, but it necessary to heal, because this internalized belief is the basis of so much destructive fear and hate today. Ideally, a country would be brought to heel and reconcile its role in genocide by making reparations and public apologies, like Germany after WWII. Absent that in America, the Legacy Museum is a start; so is Blood Done Sign My Name, which ought to be required reading for every 9th grader.

There is so much to take in at the Museum, and there are no photos allowed, which forced me to focus on the experience.

In the foyer, the exhibit shows Montgomery was a major, rail depot for slave trading. In Montgomery, sadly, the railroad was built by slaves who would later be transported on it.

There is an HBO-produced video at the beginning of the exhibit showing a family broken apart by slavery. All of this before even entering the Museum.

I was determined to read every bit of information in the Museum. Three hours later, the Museum closed, and I still had a third of the way to go. I knew about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, but I didn’t really know about the domestic slave trade, during which over 1 million people were stolen from the North and sold in the South. More than 50% of slave families were broken up never to be reunited, and people lived in fear always of their family members being sold. Can you even imagine?

I told a girlfriend I was going to Alabama to the Legacy Museum, and she asked why. She said she had no interest in that part of history but she was fascinated by the Holocaust. What the fuck. Why aren’t you interested in the parallel experience of your own country?

The Museum lays out so clearly and compellingly the progression from slavery to convict leasing to Jim Crow to the criminalization and mass incarceration of black people. I had to question some of my own assumptions while reading the content. For example, do I look at little black girls as older and more mature than little white girls? Which then lends itself to the early sexualization of black girls. Holy shit. Maybe I do. And I mentor a 12-year-old little black girl.

There was so much to unpack and learn and face at the Museum.

My major take away, besides wanting to move to Montgomery, is that I want to find a service opportunity that addresses racial equity and increases understanding and connections between people. I don’t know what that is, but it’s on my list for this year.

Also, Montgomery is the bomb! It feels like Durham 30 years ago. I went from the Legacy Museum to the Capital Oyster Bar. So much fun. They warn you to put your drinks on coasters, because the bar tilts dangerously toward the floor.

When I was researching Montgomery, I found this great NYT article 36 Hours in Montgomery, which, with the Memorial, put Montgomery on the map.

The article is posted in several of the storefronts it mentions, including the space for More Than Tours inside the Kress on Dexter building.

Kress on Dexter building is a former department store converted into mixed-use space. There is a hipster coffee shop called Prevail, Michelle’s tour space, and a space called Storybooth – brilliant, a place to share your thoughts and listen to others on Montgomery, Alabama.

Michelle’s Selma tour on Sunday was amazing. We drove to Selma, and Michelle pointed out campsites along the way where activists camped over the course of three days on their march to Montgomery. I didn’t know that there were three attempts to march to Montgomery.

We stopped at a place called Tent City on the way to Selma. This was a place where people lived in cloth tents for two years, after being kicked out of their homes by their landlords for trying to exercise their right to vote. Sharecroppers who lived and worked on a farm for 20 years were evicted just for trying to claim their right to vote. Consider the blatant racism and beliefs embedded in treating people like this. It was about 40° this Sunday afternoon, and I cannot imagine living outside during the winter.

But Selma, my heart. Downtown is beautiful–empty, but beautiful with an amazing, built environment, brick buildings, wide streets. There were maybe three storefronts open, and we stopped in one, owned by an artist who had moved from Pensacola 20 years earlier. Another bar/gallery down the street was bought by a gay couple, Michelle told us. There was another gallery around the corner, and that was about it. Even the theater that premiered the movie Selma, which thanks to Oprah Winfrey was actually filmed in Selma and not in Atlanta, has since closed. The store owner was not much impressed with the current mayor of Selma. I can only imagine the kind of dysfunction that goes on in such a divided town.

On our tour of Selma, we first went to the Brown Chapel AME Church from whence the marchers came, where Martin Luther King Jr. and others organized after a young man named Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed trying to protect his grandfather. This was the catalyst for the voting-rights march. So many faces and names beyond Martin Luther King, Junior that we do not know or forget.

There was a group of middle school children from Minnesota at the church that day taking notes and learning civil rights. Michelle took umbrage with the fact that they did not have a local tour guide, or a person of color sharing history with the students. Fair.

We visited the Live Oak Cemetery at the other end of downtown Selma. The cemetery included “Confederate Circle” with freshly-planted confederate flags to honor Jefferson Davis Day, which is the same day as Martin Luther King Jr. Day in AL. Stunning. I had not known Montgomery was the first home of the Confederacy, and to be in that cemetery, you would think the South had won the Civil War.

But such opportunity! Beautiful homes, historic buildings, if one were location-independent, one could buy a beautiful home, set up shop, and contribute to the redevelopment of Selma and Montgomery.

Michelle let us out so we could walk across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Chilling. I imagined how scared those young people must have been to walk across the bridge after having been attacked weeks before. not knowing if they might be killed.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I took the tour with an elder Jewish couple from DC. I wanted to ask Michelle a zillion questions, but instead the woman spent the entire ride back to Montgomery talking about her experience growing up in Maryland and being oblivious to racial segregation. Sometimes I feel when talking about racism, people are so quick to defend themselves to show they are not racist, they miss the opportunity to learn and listen. (Shut the fuck up! Ah well.)

That was very much the case on the way back. This woman talked so goddamn much, her husband fell asleep. Granted, she had a few great books suggestions, which I jotted down in LibraryThing, but I really wanted to hear more from Michelle about the current environment in Montgomery. We talked a little bit about public school curriculum and whether or not it touched on the Civil Rights movement and slavery. Not so much according to Michelle. To illustrate the divide, Michelle shared that Jeff Sessions had been the keynote speaker at the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce in December. 600 people attended.

Michelle recommended Bibb Street Pizza, so I stopped there after the tour. The server complimented me on ordering anchovies 🙂 Without exception, everywhere I went in Montgomery, the service was so good and the people were very friendly.

It was a strange weekend too. Mrs. B’s, a local favorite soul food restaurant, burned down early Sunday morning. And the Friday night I arrived, tornadoes touched down outside of Montgomery taking out homes and churches. It was a destructive weekend.

I was sad to leave Montgomery and wished I had one more day. Next year, I will stay through Martin Luther King, Junior Day and leave the following day. There was plenty I did not see this trip, like the Hank Williams Museum, the Freedom Rides Museum and the state archives, the remainder of the Rosa Parks Museum, and oh, Montgomery Biscuits baseball!

I did get to stop in Atlanta on the way down and the way back, which was wonderful for catching up with family. There is such a difference between my affluent aunt, who let me buy breakfast, and my unpretentious uncle, who gives all his money away to charity.

I love and was grateful to see them all. These are my people. This is where I come from.

I am looking forward to my next road trip and may make this a quarterly experience. Tupelo and Memphis, here I come!

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