Civil Rights Memorials- Day Three

| Oct 10, 2009

Saturday, October 10, 2009

By Martin J. Holland

We had a special treat arranged for us this morning- Perdita Welch had been able to arrange a visit inside Mrs. Rosa Parks’ home at the Cleveland Courts public Housing in Montgomery, Alabama.

Photo: The Rosa Parks’ home.

The Cleveland Courts were constructed in the early 1940’s to counteract the lack of affordable and adequate housing in the south. The apartments still serve as public housing today.

Photo: Interior shot of Mrs. Rosa Parks’ home.

We then visited the “Brick – A – Day” church, also known as the First Baptist Church of Montgomery, which played a central role in the struggle for equality during the civil rights era. The “Brick – A – Day” nickname came from the donation of home-made bricks made by the congregation membership to the rebuilding efforts after a fire destroyed the church in the early nineteen hundreds. The reconstruction effort lasted for five years, from 1910 to 1915 when the church was finally completed. Reverend R.D. Abernathy, a central figure of the civil rights movement, and close friend to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was also the pastor of this church from 1952 to 1961.

While there, we had the good fortune to have an organ recital performed for us by Mrs. Essley Gomiller. She served as the church’s organist for some forty-nine consecutive years. I was able to record a small snippet of the tail end of the recital. Please click on the image below this entire post to play the movie.

Photo of interior of the First Baptist Church of Montgomery.

Photo of exterior of the First Baptist Church of Montgomery.

Our next stop was the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, which is located just a stone’s throw from the State capital. This proximity is of critical importance, as Dexter Avenue has had a very troubled and difficult past. On the low end of the street, a slave auction market was established just after the founding of the city, and the site of the church itself was once the headquarters of a slave trader.

Photo of the State Capital and a memorial recognizing the swearing in of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederate States of America on February 18, 1861.

Photo of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church.

Dexter Avenue Church had its first worship service in 1889 on Thanksgiving Day, but its planning can be traced as far back as 1877. The church had been without a minister since 1953 when Rev. Vernon Johns left Montgomery. However, R.D. Nesbitt Sr. one of the church’s deacons had heard of a powerful, young preacher in Atlanta who he wanted to bring to Montgomery as the church’s new pastor. That young preacher was Martin Luther King Jr., and he was barely twenty-four years old. The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church was also the only church that Dr. King ever pastored.

It was also in the church’s basement that the decision to launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott was made on December 2, 1955 a day after the arrest of a young seamstress named Rosa Parks. Originally intended to last just a single day, the boycott lasted three hundred and eighty one days, and involved the creation of ride sharing for some forty thousand African Americans day.

Photo: Interior of the Dexter Avenue Church.

Just up the street from the historic Dexter Avenue Church is the Civil Rights Memorial Center, whose outside memorial was designed by Maya Lin in 1989. The memorial is to the forty plus people who lost their lives in the fight for desegregation, and to the landmark legal rules that officially ended the discriminatory practice on a national level.

Photo of The Civil Rights Memorial designed by Maya Lin.

Our last stop in Montgomery was to visit the parsonage that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called home while he was the Pastor at the Dexter Avenue Church. The home, on South Jackson Street, was squarely located in the center of the black middle class neighborhood of Centennial Hill. The home, built in 1912 became the parsonage used by Dr. King when he accepted the pastoral responsibilities of Dexter Avenue church in 1954. If you look closely at the photograph of the exterior of the home, you will notice that the windows of the left hand side do not match the windows on the right. The reason that this is the case is that on the evening of January 31, 1956 a bomb was thrown onto the porch and the resulting explosion destroyed the windows and damaged much of the exterior of the home. Despite shrapnel being stuck in the interior walls, thankfully no one was injured despite Mrs. King and her children being present in the home at the time of the bombing.

Photo of Dexter Street Parsonage Museum.

Photo of the bombing plaque.

We left Birmingham for Selma, but just outside of the city limits of Birmingham we stopped off at a roadside memorial dedicated to Viola Liuzzo. Viola Liuzzo was a housewife from Detroit Michigan who, after seeing the police brutality that met the first effort of African Americans to walk from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965, decided that she had to drive to Selma to offer any assistance that she could. While driving local protest organizers home along highway 80, a car containing four Ku Klux Klan members (one of whom was a police informant) open fired on the vehicle, killing her instantly. The memorial was paid for by the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and was completed in 1991. Due to numerous defacements, including the painting of the Confederate flag on the memorial, a fence was established around the memorial’s perimeter in 1999.

Photo of Viola Liuzzo Memorial.

As we entered the city limits of Selma, we stopped briefly at the memorial park on the far side of the Edmund Pettis Bridge, where the SCLC established a series of memorials to the key figures in both the national and local civil rights movement.

After a walking lecture provided by Dr. Upton in downtown Selma, we stopped by Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) (1869).The church was the starting point of the protest march against discriminatory voter registration procedures, which resulted in massive disenfranchisement of African American voters. The protest march was to start in Selma, and go all the way to the state capital of Montgomery. On March 7th, 1965 these protestors were met by local police enforcement with tear gas, billy clubs, dogs, and mounted horsemen who beat them mercilessly in front of national media. That particular Sunday became to be known as “Bloody Sunday”, and drew national and international attention to the plight of African Americans in the south. Blacks exercised their right to vote during reconstruction, however in the early part of the twentieth century, state officials saw to it that they were systematically purged from the state and local voter rolls. Practices such as severely limited hours for voter registration, poll taxes, and intense literacy requirements dropped the number of eligible black voters from some 164,000 immediately after reconstruction to a mere 3000 in 1965. In the single month following the passage of the civil rights act of 1965, more African American voters registered to vote within the state of Alabama than did so in the previous sixty-four years.

Photo of the exterior of the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma.

Photo of the interior of the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma.

Our last stop of the day in Selma was at Live Oaks Cemetery, where we met a self described historian and preservationist by the name of Patricia Goodwin. The cemetery was dedicated in 1829, and provides the final resting place for many confederate solders, and at least one large confederate memorial is present. Ms. Goodwin told us of difficulties that she experienced with her efforts to place a memorial to Nathan Bedford Forrest within the city of Selma, and she viewed the predominately African American city council as being the major detractors of her efforts. For half an hour the group listened to her descriptions of the events that led up to the memorial’s placement within the cemetery, but it became clear that her central role in the fundraising and the construction of the memorial made the events that she experienced incredibly personal. When she was challenged on some of the basics regarding the life of Nathan Bedford Forrest, such as his involvement with the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, and the possibility that he served as the first Grand Wizard of the group, she denied any involvement that he had with the Klan. When asked about a particular inscription on the memorial that refers to him as being a “wizard in the saddle”, Ms. Goodwin stated that that term was used by one of his former foes, out of respect for Forrest’s military prowess. W alking under live oaks draped with large tufts of dangling spanish moss I was struck that despite the end of the civil war some one hundred and forty four years ago, many of the wounds are still festering.

Mrs. Goodwin in front of the Nathan Bedford Forrest Memorial.

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