Montgomery Alabama on the Civil Rights Trail

The city that had been known as the “Cradle of the Confederacy” has the dual distinction of being the “Birthplace of Civil Rights.”

Shortly after marrying his college sweetheart in marion, Alabama, 24 year old martin Luther King Jr., preached his first sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a block from the Alabama State Capitol where Southern secessionists had formed the Confederacy in 1861.

The next year in 1955, 42 year old seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat on a city bus to whites as required by city ordinance.  Negro ministers and lawyers, who had been waiting for a test case on the constutionality of the law, recruited the reluctant young minister to lead a boycott of city buses.

King’s stirring oratory galzvanized the black community and made him the spokesman for the fledgling movement.  Some 50,000 Negroes refused to ride the city’s buses for 381 days until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws segregating public transportation.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the first major victory in the modern Civil Rights Movement.  Dr. King became the acknowledged leader of the movement.  His increased responsibilities prompted him to resign from church duties after four years.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Parks and her husband moved north to establish an educational program for young people.

After “Freedom Rider” college students were attacked in Montgomery in 1964, for the first time federal authorities provided protection for civil rights demonstrators.  King’s non violent leadership was recognized with the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.

Voting rights advocates in Selma decided to take action by presenting their grievances to the governor, walking 54 miles along U.S. 80 to the State Capitol in Montgomery.  After police halted the first attempt, the federal courts became involved and provided protection to marchers so that they could go forward and finish their landmark journey.

As the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights march, which began March 21, 1965, streamed into downtown Montgomery five days later en route to the Capitol, marchers passed the bus stop where Mrs. Parks had been arrested a decade earlier.


Civil Rights Overview – A Legacy of Change

During the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, amendments to the U.S. Constitution allowed freed slaves the right to vote and own property, leading to the election of Negroes to local offices and even Congress.  By the end of the 19th century, however, Southern states passed laws limiting those freedoms and segregating Negroes from whites.

The conviction of nine Negro boys on rape charges involving two white girls aboard a freight train in north Alabama became an international sensation in the 1930′s.  The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction of the Scottsboro Boys because Negroes had been excluded from the jury.  It was one of the court’s first civil rights decisions.

During World War II, Negro pilots who trained at Tuskegee’s Moton Field achieved hero status for their skill and bravery over European skies.  Although President Truman integrated the military, the Tuskegee Airmen returned to a segregated America as second-class citizens.

A decade later, congregations in Negro churches — virtually the only institution not controlled by whites — conducted  peaceful protests to overturn laws allowing segregation.  In 1955, seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested after boarding a Montgomery bus at Court Square and refusing to give up her seat to whites.

A new Montgomery minister, Martin Luther King Jr., was recruited to organize a boycott of city buses.  This began the modern Civil Rights Movement.  A year later, the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended when a U.S. Supreme Court decisions ended segregated public transportation in in 1956.

In Birmingham, Negroes were frustrated at not being allowed to vote, drink from teh same water fountains as whites or eat in white-owned cafes.  After a series of protests in 1963 when the city’s police clashed violently with marchers, racists bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and killed four black girls.

Two years later, Negroes in Selma tried to march to the State Capitol to present their grievances.  As the group left downtown, police attacked them at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  Undeterred, they completed their journey 18 days later.  Worldwide coverage of the Selma-to-Montgomery march motivated Congress to pass the Voting Rights Bill.

As African-Americans gained the ability to vote and impact local ordinances, they swept their old foes from office and gained control of some local governments.  Governor George Wallace received their support in 1982, and he appointed many blacks to public offices and boards.  African-Americans, 27 percent of the state’s population, now occupy many positions of leadership in state and local government.

Many of the movement’s foot soldiers today volunteer as guides at Alabama’s museums devoted to civil rights .  They bear witness to how the struggles of the past have improved their lives and those of their families in present-day Alabama.