A City's Collision of Histories

Can Alabama’s capital honor both civil rights and the Confederacy? It thinks so.
February 2018
(AP)
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

I don’t normally pay much attention to city seals, but the one for Montgomery merits some serious scrutiny. At the center of the seal, enclosed within a six-pointed star, are the words “Cradle of the Confederacy” in all capital letters. Surrounding the star is a white circle bearing the inscription, “Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.” It’s fair enough: Montgomery is both of these things. What’s interesting is that the city is endeavoring to promote two seemingly conflicting legacies at the same time.

Cities all across the South are trying to figure out what to do about their Confederate memorials. Montgomery’s situation is a lot more complicated. It wants to be equally proud of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jefferson Davis.

In the past decade, Alabama’s capital city has become a rather successful magnet for civil rights tourism. Its three top-rated attractions are, in order, King’s home, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where he preached and the Rosa Parks Museum, honoring the woman who ignited the civil rights era in 1955 by refusing to give up her seat on a city bus.

Then there’s attraction number four: the First White House of the Confederacy, a two-story Italianate brick building where Davis lived and governed the rebel nation during the first few crucial months of the Civil War in 1861. The house is more than a piece of Southern architectural history. It is a tribute to the Confederacy and to Davis himself. “After four years of heroic resistance,” the museum’s website tells us, “the South was crushed by the overwhelming might of the North.”

In honoring the home’s famous resident, the museum’s literature declares that Jefferson Davis was a “renowned American patriot. … He struggled to save the union and its federal principles as much as he tried to save the South.” He felt that “in giving Christianity to the Africans and submitting them to Anglo-Saxon culture, the Americans were preparing them for eventual citizenship.” And “the more intelligent of ‘his people’” -- that is, slaves -- “were educated and served as overseers and secretaries.” We’re told that Davis was never tried for treason because the U.S. government was afraid he would prove that secession was legal.

It isn’t just the house that remains in place as a tribute to the Confederate president’s life. All the state offices in Montgomery shut down each year in early June on Jefferson Davis’ birthday. Alabama is the only state that still has a holiday just for Davis. It also celebrates Confederate Memorial Day on the last Monday in April. Alabama and Mississippi are among the last states to do that. And it has been estimated that there are currently about 60 Confederate markers and monuments within the city of Montgomery.

So it’s something of a culture shock to walk the short distance from the First White House of the Confederacy to King’s house, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church or the Rosa Parks Museum.

The Parks museum, a project of nearby Troy University, is, in fact, stunning. It has a virtual reality exhibit on the Montgomery bus boycott that makes you feel as if you’re sitting there on the bus with Parks. It’s equally good on King’s role in the boycott and on the mass meetings in the city’s black community that kept the protest alive for more than a year.

The museum will be joined this year by another attraction honoring Montgomery’s civil rights history. On the downtown site of a 19th-century slave market, a new museum will be opened as a remembrance of slavery and Southern lynching victims. Some 4,000 victims’ names will be inscribed on a wall, including 363 people from Alabama and 12 from Montgomery. Visitors will be guided into a re-creation of a slave warehouse. Called the Legacy Museum, it’s a project of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery organization headed by the bestselling author and activist Bryan Stevenson. “We are not going to make further progress without talking about these histories,” he told a reporter last year.

The local business establishment and Montgomery’s conservative Republican mayor seem to agree with Stevenson, perhaps for commercial as well as historical reasons. Thousands of visitors are expected for the opening of the Legacy Museum in April. It’s time to face up to “the good, the bad and the ugly,” the president of the Downtown Business Association has said. “We cannot sweep history under the rug.”

That’s heartening to hear. Each year in mid-June, the Rosa Parks Museum hosts an outdoor fair celebrating the anniversary of the end of slavery. It includes food and drink, storytelling, art classes, and voter registration. The event itself isn’t that unusual. But here’s something that is: One of the participants is the First White House of the Confederacy. In its way, that’s a symbol of ecumenical good feeling. It’s also a symbol of a town that’s got some serious contradictions to work out.

 

As Montgomery confronts difficult questions about its past and future, yet another chapter in its history, previously ignored, has suddenly penetrated the city’s consciousness. The chapter in question is the story of Madison Park, a tiny settlement of fewer than 1,000 people on Montgomery’s western edge that has been the domain of African-Americans since the late 19th century. Madison Park is the titular subject of a new memoir by Eric Motley, a product of the neighborhood who went on to earn a Ph.D., a job in the White House and a senior position at the Aspen Institute.

There were all-black settlements created throughout the South in the years after the Civil War, but Madison Park was unlike virtually all of them. Its original plot of 560 acres was purchased by former slaves in 1880 from white farmers who had gone bankrupt. The buyers had to sign a pledge that they would not sell their houses to white people. Since that time, almost no whites have lived in Madison Park.

To the extent that was possible in 20th-century America, Madison Park was a self-sufficient black community. It was also self-policing. As Motley writes, “residents made the rules, governed and cared for each other, and meted out whatever discipline and correction a situation required.” When school integration finally arrived in the 1970s, it was opposed by many neighborhood families. “Madison Park elders feared,” Motley writes, “that forced integration would destroy their model of community-based education, which assured that every student was taught by someone who knew his or her background, parents and family situation.”

Madison Park was also remarkably stable. Sometimes 20 years would go by without any of its homes changing hands. When one did, it was always to a relative of the previous owner. Even today, every plot of land is occupied by a descendant of the original purchasing families.

Motley, born to a teenage mother he scarcely knew and raised by his grandparents, was a star student. He won speech competitions and was elected governor of Boys State, a summer leadership program. After college, he was awarded a one-year scholarship to study at St. Andrews University in Scotland. He stayed four years and ended up writing a dissertation on the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. When he returned home to eulogize his grandmother in 2011, Motley discussed the nature of community with his Madison Park audience. “People say there is no longer any sense of community in this country,” he told them, “that we’re all just concerned with ourselves. But Madison Park is proof that this isn’t so.” In his book, he makes a similar point in a succinct way: “Alienation is difficult,” he writes, “in a place where we all believed we were responsible for each other.”

Anyone who has lived a life like Motley’s is bound to reflect on nature and nurture. He believes that Madison Park, burdened by more than its share of poverty and mired for more than a century in a larger segregationist culture, is the most important answer to the question of what produced him.

It seems ironic that Madison Park, as it matured over the 20th century, was in fact a product of Jim Crow, the system of racial apartheid that took hold after the rebellion led by Davis and endured into the era of Parks and King. But in the absence of segregation, the community probably couldn’t have maintained itself, at least not as tightly as it did. This is not in any way a defense of the segregated culture in which it grew. It is merely a suggestion that even under the most difficult circumstances it is possible for close-knit, self-contained communities, whatever their color and income level, to achieve a stable and decent life for their inhabitants.

We make a mistake when we dismiss these places as relics of the distant past, incapable of teaching us anything about our future. That’s important to remember as Montgomery embraces its dual history of Confederate leaders and civil rights advocates.