Oct 20 – Lessons from Alabama

We toured Alabama’s state capitol, also the first confederate capitol. This room is the Senate chambers where the Confederacy was born and where Jefferson Davis was voted in as its President.

The irony of saving our visit to the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery for last was not lost on us. By then, we had already visited the state capitol and Selma where we got educated on the historic Selma to Montgomery march that led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite the amazing story of Rosa Park’s simple act of defiance against injustice has been in America’s conscious for as long as I can remember, we learned at the Rosa Parks Museum that this single act set off a wave of events that eventually led to the Selma to Montgomery march and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

A modest sculpture of Rosa Parks in downtown Montgomery. On Dec 1, 1955, an African American seamstress riding a bus performed an act of defiance that sparked events leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 & the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the Rosa Parks Museum, you can watch a taped re-creation of the bus scene that ended with Parks’ removal from the bus and arrest. In the middle window sits Parks being confronted by the bus driver.

Immediately following the arrest of Rosa Parks, Jo Ann Robinson, the president of The Women’s Political Council, a group of Black women working for civil rights began the call to boycott Montgomery’s city buses. The night of Park’s arrest, Robinson and others from the council printed out 35,000 flyers announcing a citywide bus boycott on December 5, 1955. Local black residents stopped riding the buses on that day.

It was the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association by local ministers that organized the boycott and kept it going strong. A relatively unknown minister by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr was elected the association’s president. The boycott lasted 381 days and officially ended on December 20, 1956, giving King national attention as a rising leader in the Civil Rights movement. The Supreme Court soon after ruled in favor of integration of the city’s bus system.
At the time of Rosa Parks’ arrest, Martin Luther King, Jr was the pastor at the Dexter Ave Baptist Church in Montgomery and was relatively unknown in the civil rights movement.

About 50 miles west of Montgomery is Selma within Dallas County. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Dallas County and adjacent Lowndes County were among the poorest and most repressive for black people in the country. Racially motivated terrorism and police intimidation was so rampant that Lowndes County was known as “Bloody Lowndes”.

In Dallas County, Alabama it was next to impossible for a black person to become a registered voter and in 1963, only 130 black people were registered out of 15,000 living in the county. No black person was registered to vote in bloody Lowndes County. Knowing the correct number of jelly beans in the jar and paying a poll tax, maybe you can apply to register to vote.
A totalitarian law enforcement led by Dallas County sheriff Jim Clark reigned terror on the Black community and enforced Alabama’s harsh segregation and biased voting laws.
Downtown Selma, where you can visit the Selma Interpretive Center. The center was closed when we were there (Covid restrictions) but the gift shop was open.

By 1963, eyes had turned toward Dallas County and Selma as a hotbed of civil rights turmoil. John Lewis, founder and chairman of the Nashville-based Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) made a scouting trip to Selma and came back to report “The blacks are too scared, and the whites are too mean”. Nevertheless, SNCC came to Selma and organized voting registration for its black community.

One of the responses to the attempts to organize voter registration was to impose a law that made it illegal for two or more black people to congregate in public in Dallas County. Churches were the only refuge for blacks and Brown Chapel AME in Selma became the meeting place for the community and civil rights organizers. Traffic and construction kept me from getting a better shot of the church.

Sam Walker, historian and curator of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma told us that at the time, the pastor of Brown Chapel was resistant to making his church the meeting place for organizers given the recent bombing in Birmingham that killed four children on September 15, 1963. His wife thought otherwise, “It’s because of those four little girls that you need to do this”. So, he did. And as SNCC attempted to mobilize the community to apply to register to vote, voter application denials increased and so did the violence.

The National Voting Rights Museum & Institute is located in a modest, somewhat run-down building east of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Its primary goal is “to educate, inform, and remind individuals of the lessons of the past by enriching and enhancing the knowledge of voting rights through visual and audio means.”

By 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) joined up with SNCC to make Selma the location to focus on the Black voter registration campaign. SNCC has been there for a couple years dealing with the violence and intimation of Jim Clark’s police state. But now, all eyes were on Selma with King, who had recently won the Nobel Peace Prize in the lead.

George Wallace, then Governor of Alabama vowed to resist integration. Despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, blacks were met with this strong resistance in Alabama and other southern states.
The Ku Klux Klan was very active in blocking efforts to register African Americans to vote. This chilling life-size model with authentic KKK garb is on display at the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma.

By February 18, 1965, national media attention was drawn to Selma and the voting rights cause as King and other civil rights leaders organized several demonstrations. King has been arrested on February 1 and during the three days he sat in jail, he wrote “Letter from a Selma Jail” which was immediately published in the New York Times. On the night of February 18, Jimmie Lee Jackson and his mother were participating in a nighttime voting rights march in Marion, Alabama. Unarmed and trying to protect his mother, Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed by the state troopers that came in to break up the march.

Jackson’s death spurred SCLC and SNCC leaders to organize a Selma to Montgomery march in which Selma residents would march to the capital and present Governor Wallace with their grievances. The first march on March 7 did not go well.

Edmund Pettus was a US Senator from Alabama from 1897 to 1907. He served as an officer of the Confederate State Army. After the war, he became active in the KKK, serving as a Grand Dragon. The bridge in Selma was dedicated to Alabama’s ‘hero’ in 1940.
A display at the Lowndes Interpretive Center, located on U.S. 80 between Selma and Montgomery.

On October 19, 2021, we parked the truck in downtown Selma and walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the same direction as that of the marchers on March 7, 1965. As Vivian and I crested the top of the bridge and continued to the other side, we tried to envision what those marchers, or as Sam Walker calls them, ‘foot soldiers’ saw waiting for them on the other side of the bridge.

On March 7, about 600 people led by John Lewis and other SNCC leaders departed Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma with the intention of marching 54 miles to Montgomery to protest for voters’ rights. On the bridge, they were met by a column of state troopers and local volunteer officers of the sheriff’s department that blocked their path.
A display at the Lowndes Interpretive Center, a short video narrated by John Lewis.

The attack caused outrage around the country, and March 7 became known as “Bloody Sunday”. Following Bloody Sunday, Martin Luther King, Jr who had been in Atlanta on that day, returned to Selma and led another march on March 9. The march was ‘symbolic’ and upon reaching the bridge, the King and the protestors decided to turn back rather than risk another violent confrontation.

A display at the Lowndes Interpretive Center, brought to you by the National Park Service.
Sam Walker, curator of the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute has a mission. He creates footprint molds from the “foot soldiers’, those who marched from Selma to Montgomery. Walker himself was there as an 11-yr old who volunteered to clean up camps along the march route.
Many of the photographs on display at the National Voting Rights Museum were donated by federal officers who were there to protect the marchers. Some of them were tasked with photographing marchers and bystanders as a means of keeping records in case violence erupted.

Civil rights leaders sought court protection for a third march from Selma to the state capitol. It was provided and President Johnson sent National Guards and troops in the protection of the protesters. Third time is a charm. On March 21, about 3200 marchers set out for Montgomery, walking about 12-15 miles a day, sleeping in fields at night. By the time they reached the steps of the capitol on March 25, they were 25,000 strong.

A map illustrating the Selma to Montgomery march route.
The final stop along the route, Alabama’s state capitol as the marchers would have seen it.
The bronze star marks the spot where Jefferson Davis gave his acceptance speech as President of the Confederacy. Here is where Martin Luther King, Jr stood in front of a 25,000 people on March 25, 1965 and spoke, “Our God is Marching On”.
Less than five months after the last of the three marches, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But as they say, “it ain’t over ’til it’s over”. Meanwhile, back in Lowndes County, violence against Blacks who attempted to register to vote increased. White land owners retaliated against tenant farmers who registered to vote or engaged in voting rights activities by kicking them off the land. SNCC leaders, including Stoky Carmichael organized and helped keep the dispossessed families together by building a tent city to serve as a temporary home, located on land donated by the Matthew Jackson family, along U.S. 80, currently where the Lowndes Interpretive Center is located.

We learned about tent city at the Lowndes Interpretive Center. Several hundred dispossessed people lived in tents for up to two years while organizers attempted to find them new jobs and permanent homes. Campers were constantly harassed and threatened by white locals.
We often associate the ‘Black Panthers’ as a militant group. It actually began as a ballot symbol and soon was adopted by the Lowndes County residents’ political party as the Black Panther Party.

I will end this blog with two photographs taken from inside the Alabama state capitol. Three years ago, we visited Eufaula, Alabama where we learned about Horace King. King, born a slave in 1807 became a successful engineer and architect, and then later a member of Alabama’s House of Representatives. It was our pleasure to learn that the beautiful cantilever stairs in the capitol were designed and built by Horace King.

2 thoughts on “Oct 20 – Lessons from Alabama

  1. Such brave and organized women and men. I didn’t know that so few Blacks were able to register to vote. What a reign of terror. Appreciated your clear, unemotional telling of the history.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s