Civil War, Civil Rights
If you drive into Selma on Highway 80, you'll be greeted by two reminders of the town's history. One one side of the road, you'll see this:
Directly across the street from that lovely billboard is this NVRMI-sponsored mural that honors some of martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement:
And here, on what might be the strangest street corner in the U.S.A., both legacies intersect - literally:
The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement profoundly affected Selma and the rest of the South, and both eras are part of the same history. But, although Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jefferson Davis awkwardly meet at a local intersection, tourists who visit this town generally choose between one or the other. In fact, the people who participate in the annual Battle of Selma re-enactment don't visit the NVRMI, and vice-versa. Unsurprisingly, local Confederate history buffs don't support the Slavery and Civil War Museum, which is run by the folks at the NVRMI. And if they did, I'd actually pay to watch them spend an hour with Afriye on her Middle Passage tour.
The battle re-enactors are probably the least offensive group, though, when it comes to remembering "the Cause." Merely dressing up in gray uniforms and pretending to whoop Yankee butt seems pretty tame when compared to the group called the "Friends of Forrest." Their mission is to support the legacy of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who organized Ku Klux Klan chapters across the South in the years following the Civil War. This is the man who, as a Confederate general, commanded the massacre of African American soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee after the troops had already surrendered. Nice guy, huh? The club members reason that if Rose Sanders, Joanne Bland and the folks of the NVRMI want to commemorate their heritage, then why can't they uphold the legacy of a man who helped "their people?"
The good news is that as long as people like Sanders and Bland are alive and kicking, we can be sure that organizations like the Friends of Forrest don't have the final word on southern history. Back in 2001, Rose led a coalition that demanded the removal of a Forrest statue from its prominent location at a local cemetary. When the city council moved too slowly on the issue, she physically tried to tear the statue down by herself. (Newspapers across the state printed pictures of this.) And, this group works tirelessly to rename streets around Selma in honor of local movement activists like Rev. L.L. Anderson, Marie Foster and Annie Cooper. 96 year old Cooper made headlines in 1965 when she beat down Sheriff Jim Clark after he struck her during a demonstration. Now she lives on the street that bears her name.
Selma obviously isn't the only town that praises both its Confederate and Civil Rights histories, however. Just go to Atlanta, the city at the center of "Gone With the Wind" and the birthplace of MLK. But, I don't think any city dances between the two legacies as smoothly (and strangely) as Montgomery. Here are a few photos taken by Jerome and me during our last visit...
Civil Rights memorial outside of the Southern Poverty Law Center:
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where MLK served as pastor during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It's across the street from the Lurleen Wallace state building (named in honor of the former governor and wife of George Wallace):
And less than a block from Dexter Ave. is the first White House of the Confederate States of America, which, of course, gets a bit more publicity than Dexter:
Just down the street at Court Square, this sign marks the site of the city's antebellum slave market. The other side of the marker (not shown) describes how, in 1866, former slaves celebrated the first anniversary of emancipation here:
But, just across the square, another marker reminds us of the city's role in the "War Between the States":
I hope you've enjoyed this journey through Alabamian historical memory. Until next time...