“We Must Take Sides” – The Ongoing Struggle for Montgomery’s Past

By  Ruari Shaw Sutherland (Staff Writer) 

“My own convictions, as to negro slavery, are strong […] We recognize the negro as God and God's Book and God's Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him - our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude...You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be.” (Jefferson Davis, 1850s)
“In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth […] I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” (Gov. George Wallace, 1963)
“I stand before you this afternoon with the conviction that segregation is on its deathbed in Alabama, and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly the segregationists and Wallace will make the funeral. […] Let us march on ballot boxes until the Wallaces of our nation tremble away in silence” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, 1965)

The wide, open, near-empty streets of downtown Montgomery, Alabama, with their impossibly verdant greenery give the city a sense of hyper-reality. But Montgomery is a city of real struggle. Everywhere you turn there are plaques, information boards, murals, memorials, and statues, dragging the tourist gaze back to the South’s tumultuous past. Walking around the city, it is hard not to feel deeply affected by both the gruesome and truly heroic stories which have come to shape the state and the country. The three quotes above illustrate the brutally racist historical crucible in which this place was formed.

Alabama State Capitol

Alabama State Capitol

I was in Montgomery in April of this year to interview staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Hate and Extremism unit for my PhD. The SPLC is a civil rights law centre, and the unit I was meeting with spend their time monitoring, researching, and ultimately destroying hate groups in the US. Fitting, then, that they are based here in the cradle of the confederacy and the civil rights movement.

Recently voted America’s best historic city - Montgomery has the feel of a living museum, where the struggle for and against civil rights has been eerily preserved. If this were a museum, however, I’d be asking some searching questions of the curators. A city of sharp contradictions, where the histories of the American Civil War and the civil rights movement collide, and are juxtaposed in often uncomfortable ways. Critical reminders of the struggle for civil rights stand side by side with uncritical accounts of the Civil War, the Confederacy, and segregation era politics.

Historical information boards

Historical information boards

The Rosa Parks Museum, for example, tells the story of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, and the Civil Rights Memorial Center explores the lives of martyrs in the struggle for freedom. These exhibits remind us that history favours the powerful, and that the subaltern must be actively remembered and reintroduced if they are not to be written out of narratives of struggle. Slavery was not abolished, or segregation ended, through the actions of benevolent white folks. It was bitterly fought for. Omnipresent in Montgomery, information boards serve as a constant reminder – much like the un-waved flag in Billig’s seminal theory of banal nationalism – that these struggles were fought and won by those racialised others, tired of oppression. Rosa Parks, riding a segregated bus in this very city, refused to be moved for the benefit of white men. In her now famous words: “the only tired [she] was, was tired of giving in”.

Alongside the critical project of remembrance, however, stand the structures and institutions which made such bitter struggles necessary. The First Whitehouse of the Confederacy, for example, has become a museum in which a sanitised account of the American Civil War and the deeply racist Jefferson Davis, are glorified. The three stories the museum hopes to tell are:

  1. What happened during the spring of 1861 when a government was formed from few resources except cotton and courage.
  2. The story of Jefferson Davis, a renowned American patriot long before the war, and his family.
  3. The story of the preservation of the house.

The museum fails to acknowledge that Jefferson Davis was a fervent advocate for slave-holding, and that alongside cotton and courage, many thousands of slaves from Africa were bought, sold, used, and killed under the convictions of this man. The only mention of slaves in the museum is found on a small information tag explaining that slaves built the wardrobe to which it is affixed, for Davis. The museum’s website also has but one mention of slavery – egregious in its lack of criticality: “Jefferson Davis was held by his Africans in genuine affection as well as highest esteem” (my emphasis). Such accounts conveniently ‘forget’ (or perhaps tacitly support?) the racialization of slaves and the enduring racist structures produced through slavery.

A few minutes around the corner, stands the grandiose State Capitol building, and the steps on which George Wallace and Martin Luther King spoke the powerful words cited above. Inside, the history of the civil rights movement is purged from the city’s official memory – except for a section in the gift shop where it is commodified and packaged up for sale. Instead, there is an uncomfortable ignorance of the injustices enacted from within those walls. Visitors are greeted by a bust of Gov. Lurleen Wallace – a segregationist in the same vein as her husband – and two stately portraits of George and Lurleen Wallace hanging near the entrance. These artefacts set the tone for the building where the worst stereotypes of reactionary Southern politics are on display (I overheard a primary school tour, whose official State Capitol guide explained 9/11 and the subsequent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan by declaring: “they wanted a war kids, so we gave them one”).

A recent controversy surrounding the portraits’ re-location away from the rotunda – the most prestigious space – ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march, centred on perceived historical revisionism and political correctness. However, the City’s decision to move the paintings, I suspect, was borne more of embarrassment and political expediency. The constant struggle to represent the State’s history is laid bare in these moments.

Portrait of George Wallace

Portrait of George Wallace

One night, after a few beers in a local bar, I walked back toward my hotel with a local African-American couple I’d been chatting to. He was an American football coach and she was studying on the local military base. He told me stories of being chased off the pitch by white players when he played football at college in the mid-eighties when Wallace was still Governor. “The black players didn’t shower” he recounted “We grabbed our clothes and we ran, otherwise we got beaten. When we were on the pitch it was all: ‘good throw boy, you ain’t bad’. Afterwards they’d throw bottles at us and it was ‘ni**er’ this ‘ni**er’ that”. His girlfriend, a little tipsier than the two of us (it was her birthday), stopped by the fountain on Dexter Ave and screamed toward the State Capitol: “fuck you George Wallace!” Nearly thirty years since Wallace left office, and fifty years since he tried to block the march from Selma, the legacy of his brutal racist politics hangs thick in the air.

There are still those here who, like Wallace, believe in segregation. There are those, too, who do not, but are forced to feel its effects. Stuck in substandard housing with poor public transport links and an education system which is failing them, the State’s history weighs heavy. No amount of so-called ‘historical revision’ or ‘political correctness’ can address the ingrained racist structures which pervade here. Moving the portraits around the Capitol is rather unfortunately analogous with the well-worn idiom of shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic. However, a radical approach to the city’s history – one which does not hide behind ‘objectivity’ – is an important part of suturing the wounds inflicted by the past. To invoke the words of the Selma to Montgomery protest: the march really must go on. The sanitised and whitewashed (I use this term advisedly) history of violent racism in Montgomery, I believe, is criminal. As Elie Wiesel powerfully argues from the walls of the Civil Rights Memorial Center in the city, “we must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim”.

Wall panel at the Civil Rights Memorial Center

Wall panel at the Civil Rights Memorial Center