Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A tale of two cities

I'm actually back home now, but thought I should continue writing about my road trip around the South, because I have to say it was an enlightening trip overall.

The biggest disappointment was New Orleans--not because the city disappointed us. On the contrary, the two previous times I had been to New Orleans I thought it was a fascinating place, and I was really looking forward to seeing what the city was like in the years post-Katrina.

However, when Southern Man and I had driven over 5 hours from Natchez, MS to our bed and breakfast in the garden district of New Orleans, Annabelle's House, we were told by the innkeeper that he had accidently double-booked our room and that since there was a conference of over 30,000 opticians in town, there wasn't a room to be had in New Orleans, a truth I accepted since I booked us into his B&B because I couldn't find a room in any hotel in the French Quarter when I looked back in January.

Needless to say, we were livid. Especially since the B&B owner didn't even attempt to provide any option for us beyond telling us to find a hotel near the airport or in a town half an hour away. So we said so long to New Orleans and drove onto Mobile, AL, not an expected stop for us, but it would put us closer to Montgomery, AL and also allow us to stay there a day early.

Which turned out to be a good thing because the two museums I really wanted to go to, the Rosa Parks museum at Troy University and the Civil Rights Museum run by the Southern Poverty Law Center were only open on Saturday (and we were originally slated to get into town on Sunday afternoon, and both museums were closed through Tuesday).

I have to say that I found Montgomery to be a very interesting city--really, it's two cities (hence my post's title), which you can see in the seal of the city of Montgomery:

[sorry it's fuzzy--but essentially what you see within the center of the seal is the phrase "the cradle of the confederacy" and what you see around the perimeter of the inner seal is the phrase "birthplace of the civil rights movement."]

Montgomery is both the place where the confederacy gained its first foothold in the early days of the civil war, where Stonewall Jackson established the first whitehouse of the confederacy:

[as a little point of trivia, Jackson and his family ended up moving to Richmond, VA after a year or so, establishing that residence as the second confederate whitehouse]

Montgomery is also the place where some of the most egregious acts of racism--of violence and racial oppression and harassment happened. And it's where George Wallace, who was sworn in as governor of Alabama in 1962 declared on the steps of the Alabama state capital "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever"

[the Alabama state capital]

However, Montgomery is where Rosa Parks first made her stand by not standing up and giving up her seat to a white bus patron.

[This is the entrance to the Rosa Parks museum at Troy University]

It's where Martin Luther King Jr. was propelled into history through his leadership during the Montgomery bus boycotts while he was the pastor of the Dexter Baptist Church.

And it's where the Southern Poverty Law Center established a memorial and museum commemorating the Civil Rights movement and those who died for the cause of civil and human rights.

Overall, I found our trip to Montgomery to be not only educational but really inspirational. I think too often we forget about what life was like in the pre-Civil Rights era. Hearing first hand testimonials from people who were living in Montgomery and who had to endure segregation and life as second-class citizens and reading about the crimes committed against African Americans and white allies who were working for civil rights made me realize how comfortable I am and who I have to thank for my present comfort and opportunities. It also made me wonder, if I had been alive in the 1950s, what choices would I have made? Would I have marched on Washington? Would I have been a freedom rider? Would I have risked me life to ensure a better life and a better society--a better America, a mixed-race America?

I'd like to think the answer is yes, but I honestly don't know. I haven't had to push myself like that in my current life. I have written letters. I have spoken out. But I have done so from a fairly comfortable and fairly secure position. Anyway, it does give me pause to think about the stands I want to take and the limits of my own privilege and recognizing my privilege and hoping I'd risk it for causes I believed were important.


dance said...

I've never asked myself if I would have marched (I'm fairly sure I wouldn't have protested in Hitler's Germany, though I think I might have pretended I didn't see the neighbors down the street sneaking in extra food). Marching? Would being a professor in pre-civil rights US have made me more conservative, playing it safe, or more radical, because I bumped up against the constraints more? It's an interesting question.

Jennifer said...


It's a great question to think about what positions people in academia took or felt like they could take back in the 60s. First of all, academia would have been HUGELY male dominated, there was no such thing as critical race theory/studies or women studies, so if I had someone made it into academia (highly unlikely) I'm sure there would have been a lot of pressure on me to keep my head down, lie low, and just survive. you suggest, would this kind of atmosphere actually propelled me (or you, or anyone else) into saying F*** IT! I'm going to take a stand because I'm tired of all this racist crap!

Guess we'll never know, but every once in a while I like to wonder because I want to remind myself that for fights I think are important (like gay marriage) I need to really not just talk the talk but walk the walk.

Colby family said...

totally off topic, sort of.....but next time, stay at the Mckendrick-Breaux House. My friend is the owner.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for the suggestion Colby Family--I love personal recommendations!