Slavery to civil rights: Tracing Montgomery’s long road to justice

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice commemorates lynchings victims in the United States. Contributed by Blake Guthrie

Museums, monuments and historic sites chart journey toward racial equality

Situated on a sweeping horseshoe bend in the Alabama River, downtown Montgomery was once a major center of the domestic slave trade in the antebellum South. Enslaved people were transported on the river, unloaded at the dock, marched up Commerce Street and sold-off at the market on Court Square.

Today, there’s a beautiful circa-1885 fountain in the middle of Court Square adorned with frolicking figures from Greek mythology. Standing by the fountain and its soothing sounds of falling water, witnessing modern American life go on around you, it’s hard to fathom all the human suffering that once took place at this spot when people were treated like chattel and families were torn apart. So many slaves were trafficked through Montgomery that depots were built to warehouse them until it came time for the auction block. And it was all legal.

To help make sense of such a troubling history, head to the Legacy Museum, located one block away on the site of an old slave warehouse. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization that provides legal support to those who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced or abused by the prison system, opened the museum in 2018. The first thing you see upon walking inside are the words, "From enslavement to mass incarceration" over the entryway. That phrase provides a clue that you aren't entering an ordinary history museum but going on a journey from then to now.

The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, is located on the site of a slave warehouse. Contributed by Robert Rausch/The New York Times

The museum’s galleries chronicle racial injustice in the United States, beginning with replicas of pens where enslaved people were kept in the warehouses. High-tech displays and video consoles continue the journey through the Jim Crow era up to today’s crises of mass incarceration and police brutality. Touring the museum is a somber experience as you learn about the darker chapters in our history, the myths of racial inferiority and white supremacy that propelled them and how these false narratives evolved to shape present-day attitudes.

After a tour of the museum, proceed less than a mile away to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a sister site to the Legacy Museum. Located on a hillside overlooking downtown, it is a memorial to the 4,400 African Americans who were lynched in this country between 1877 and 1950. Red-rusted steel monoliths hang from the rafters of the open-air complex. Each monolith represents a county in the United States where documented lynchings took place. The names of the victims and the dates of their deaths are inscribed, thereby making each monolith a monument. The number of monuments above your head boggles the mind and stirs the soul. For each monument hanging inside the complex, a corresponding one lies on the ground outside, awaiting the community to claim it via the EJI's Community Remembrance Project. The project aims to foster dialogue and raise consciousness at the local level where lynchings occurred.

Also on the six-acre grounds are stark, life-sized sculptures depicting enslaved people in bondage and, near the end of the pathway that leads through the site, African American domestic workers walking to the homes of the white families that employed them. These figures represent the foot soldiers and unsung heroes of the seminal Montgomery bus boycott of 1955. The sculptures stand in the middle of the pathway, so it’s as if you’re walking alongside these determined women.

The bus boycotts are also at the center of the Rosa Parks Museum, located on Montgomery Street between the two EJI sites. When Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus, the boycotts were sparked and the modern civil rights movement was born. The museum includes a display containing the original arrest report that includes Parks’ fingerprints. There’s also a restored public bus from the era. A unique large-scale video with actors re-enacts the events of that fateful day inside the bus while visitors stand outside and watch it unfold. A historic marker on the sidewalk out front designates the spot where Parks was arrested.

A statue of a hero greets visitors at the Rosa Parks Museum in downtown Montgomery. Contributed by Blake Guthrie

The boycott also brought to prominence a young pastor from Atlanta who had recently moved to Montgomery to become pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. became a leader of the boycott and held mass organizational meetings in the church where he served from 1954-1960. Now called Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, it’s a National Historic Site open for tours and still an active church. The church looks the same inside and out as it did during King’s time, and his basement office is kept exactly as it was then, including the books on the shelves and the rotary phone on the desk.

Other notable nearby sites connected to the civil rights movement are the Dexter Parsonage Museum where King and his family lived during his time as pastor; the Freedom Rides Museum housed in the old Greyhound bus station where the Freedom Riders were attacked in 1961; and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial that pays tribute to those who died in the civil rights struggles between 1954 and 1968.

Back at the Court Square fountain, you can look straight up Dexter Avenue and see the sites where many historical events transpired. To the immediate right is the building where the order was telegraphed to fire on Fort Sumter, thereby starting the Civil War. At the top of the hill looms the state capitol building, where the final march from Selma ended on March 25, 1965, and King delivered his famous “How Long, Not Long” speech within view of the church where he once served as pastor. The speech contains the oft-quoted line: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Apropos words, given the location. From slave auctions to civil rights marches to the homes of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Equal Justice Initiative, Montgomery has come a long way in bending that arc in the right direction.

If you go

Montgomery is 161 miles southwest from downtown Atlanta via I-85

Sites

The Legacy Museum Pavilion. $8, $10 combo ticket includes the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and shuttle service between the two locations, free parking. 400 N. Court St. 334-386-9100, museumandmemorial.eji.org.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. $5. 417 Caroline St. 334-386-9100, museumandmemorial.eji.org.

Rosa Parks Museum. $7.50. 252 Montgomery St. 334-241-8615, www.troy.edu.

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. Tours are free Tuesday-Saturday, donations accepted. 454 Dexter Ave. 334-263-3970, www.dexterkingmemorial.org.

Visitor info

Montgomery Area Visitor Center. 300 Water St. 334-262-0013, visitingmontgomery.com

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