Trailing History
Birmingham. Selma. Montgomery. Alabama bears the scars of the civil rights era, and the monuments to that struggle inspire the courage to face new challenges.

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2009

You need to get to the rain forests before they're all gone, and the polar ice caps may have melted by the time you try to see them, but it's Alabama that demands your immediate attention. And by Alabama I mean that place where elegant black ladies of a certain age stand sentinel over the trails through civil rights country.

Really. They're lit from within, these women; they glow as only people can who never thought they'd live to see the day but then live to see the day. And as they gaze out on the landscape of a country facing agonizing choices and certain pain, they haven't a doubt in the world that we'll get through this. After all, we've gotten through far worse.

The day I landed in Birmingham a few weeks back, there was every reason to believe that the rain and icy temperatures would soon end and the city would return to the 60-degree weather to which it's accustomed in February. Instead, it began to rain harder, and then it began to pour. Pedestrians with mangled umbrellas raced through Kelly Ingram Park, a standard-issue urban green space where pansies now grow in dainty rows but where thousands once gathered to demand an end to segregation and police retaliated by siccing attack dogs on children and aiming at them with fire hoses powerful enough to strip the bark off trees.

Across the street at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum and research center, five massive picture windows overlook the park in a room devoted to the Kelly Ingram chapter of the story. The institute also houses a charred Greyhound bus, a replica of one that a group of Freedom Riders rode through Alabama before it was firebombed; and the pale green bars of the cell where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous "Letter From Birmingham Jail." And when you get to the end of a long series of hallways (a gut-wrenching trip that begins with sharecropper mannequins and ends with a quote from then-Sen. Barack Obama: "We are the ones we've been waiting for"), you get to Yvonne Williams's desk. Before coming to the institute, Williams spent all of 31 years teaching fourth grade in Birmingham public schools. And still she retired too soon.

"We used to have that poster with all the presidents, you know?" Williams says. "And I distinctly remember this little boy coming up to me one day and saying, 'Mrs. Williams, where is the black one?' I thought, Lord, give the words to say it." She stops for a moment, collects herself.

"I just said to him, 'Maybe in your lifetime.' "

The doorbell at the institute rings, and Williams's demeanor changes abruptly.

"Denzel!" she shouts. "Get down there to the rotunda. We got company!" After a moment, a boy of 12 or so wearing a clip-on tie slinks slowly past. He gives her a look, and she gives him one right back.

"Now what was I saying? Some people come in here -- you see tears, anger, everything. The other day I saw this white gentleman just overwhelmed. I said, 'Do you need a chair?' And he said, 'No, I just need to get out of here for a while.' "

Williams has worked in the institute's research division for five years now "and will be here till God sends me home." She worries about the younger generation, for whom nonviolent resistance is a quaint notion, and she wonders if they've already forgotten how rocky the road to Inauguration Day really was. They're up against a lot these days, she says, and toughness in the face of such trials is the only thing that's going to work.

"We just have to keep fighting. That's what I tell them. That's what America's all about. Don't stop."

* * *

There isn't just one civil rights trail in Alabama, just as there wasn't only a single strand to the movement. The state capital, Montgomery, 90 miles south of Birmingham, will forever be associated with Rosa Parks and the 1955 bus boycott. Selma saw the struggle for voting rights that led to the bloody 1965 confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and ultimately to the 54-mile, four-day march to Montgomery that brought Alabama to the nation's, and the world's, attention. The route, along U.S. Highway 80, has been designated a historic trail, and the National Park Service operates a terrific visitors center at the route's midpoint.

And then there is Birmingham, once known as the Magic City thanks to the phenomenal population growth it experienced after its founding in 1871, and later the Tragic City after it became the most segregated city in the South. Birmingham had separate hotels for blacks and whites, separate cemeteries, ambulances, even elevators. And the regular eruptions of violence brought with them yet another nickname for Alabama's largest city: Bombingham.

"Ring the doorbell around the corner. Someone will let you in," says a woman in the building beside the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a block from the institute. The winds are howling, and the rain is almost horizontal. There's usually a tour, she apologizes over the din, but the guide is sick today.

And so it's just the church and me, strolling through the stately sanctuary with its wraparound gallery as the storm rages outside, gazing up at the windows that rained stained glass on church members after 10 sticks of dynamite exploded under a stairway on a Sunday morning in 1963, killing four young girls in the basement. It was yet another pivotal moment for the civil rights movement and one that the church honors simply, if powerfully, in the Memorial Nook downstairs. There are portraits of the girls the world came to know simply as Cynthia, Carole, Denise and Addie Mae; the clock from the sanctuary is there, too, forever reading 10:22; also a photo of the lone stained-glass window to survive the bombing, undamaged except for the hole where Jesus's face used to be.

* * *

There's at least one other church basement of significance in the area, the one on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery. Now known as Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist, it's the church where Martin Luther King Jr. was once senior pastor (his only church, as it turns out). It, too, has regular tours, as well as a beautiful mural by church member John W. Feagin (photography is prohibited, sadly), and a woman by the name of Miriam Norris, the 130-year-old church's tour manager.

"Dr. King was the 20th pastor in our history," she says, and, sure enough, there's his framed photo amid those of the 26 other pastors, a 24-year-old, fresh-faced newcomer still working on his Boston University doctorate.

"It's very gratifying to be able to tell this story," Norris continues with the confident tone of the TV anchorwoman she once was. She is showing me King's office in the basement. Then she allows me a peek -- not part of the public tour -- at the blond wood desk on which he planned the Montgomery bus boycott. Norris admits that it should be on public display, here or somewhere, but the church doesn't have the funds. For now, it is still in use by Dexter's current pastor, Michael F. Thurman, a Montgomery native who remains as astonished as ever by what occurred in his office.

"I have to revert to theological terminology," he tells me. "It was the zeitgeist. God's timing. The right moment and the right spark came together." And the lesson there is that world history can be made anywhere, anywhere, as long as the moment and the spark come together. Montgomery, in other words. What else, the pastor asked, could explain how more than 1,000 years of the African slave trade and 75 years of Jim Crow were finally defeated in a few dank, linoleum-floored Alabama basements?

* * *

On the other end of Dexter Avenue, just a few blocks away, sits what was once the home of the Montgomery Fair department store. ("It's loft apartments for yuppies now," Norris says.) In 1955 it was the place where Rosa Parks worked as an assistant tailor, spending endless hours on her feet before boarding the bus for home at Montgomery and Lee streets a few blocks away. Now at that corner sits the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, a powerful testament to the woman who famously wouldn't give up her seat.

It's an oft-told story, of course, but one that the museum manages to make fascinating all over again. I watch a short film about Parks's life with a class of local students, after which we're all ushered into a room whose major feature is a cutaway replica of a yellow Montgomery Transit Authority bus. Using projected video, the museum provides a riveting, moment-by-moment dramatization of a bus ride that at least initially seems unremarkable: Passengers board, Parks among them, make small talk, settle into their papers. Even Parks's famous reply when the police threaten arrest -- "You may do that" -- sounds less like an act of defiance than the weary cry of a woman who has been standing on her feet all day. You see the reactions of fellow bus riders, some of whom are annoyed, some who can't believe what they're seeing and some who can't be bothered to look up from their papers and see history unfolding before their eyes.

The film continues. Parks is at last forcibly removed from the bus, but there's no melodramatic music or fanfare of any kind. No, her seat is immediately taken by a white passenger, and the bus simply pulls off. The final sections of the presentation proceed like the first; it's just an ordinary day again. If you blinked, you might have missed the meeting of the moment and the spark, the beginning of things never being the same.

* * *

"If people hadn't stuck together, it would never have worked."

That's Shirley Cherry, yet another lambent Alabama sentinel I meet on my travels. Cherry runs tours of the Dexter Parsonage Museum on Centennial Hill, King's home while he was a pastor in town. As a girl she worked in a cleaners in Tuskegee and was regularly charged with the task of washing the white robes of Ku Klux Klansmen. ("I always say that the Klan put me through school," she says with a wry smile.) The sun has come out, but there's a bitter wind blowing up from downtown Montgomery. Cherry walks slowly but steadily from an adjacent building to the parsonage, a proud 1912 relic of what was once an upscale African American neighborhood but is now spiraling downward.

"People have to stick together," Cherry says, shaking her head and gazing down South Jackson Street.

We flee the cold and enter the house, and just like that it's the '50s again. On the coffee table in the parlor, there's a dish of pecans gathered from the trees out back, crocheted doilies and a few loose cigarettes scattered here and there. ("Dr. King was a private smoker," Cherry confides. "Some people say he smoked Winstons. Most people say he smoked OPBs -- other people's brands. I mean, who's not going to give Martin Luther King a cigarette?")

In the living room, afternoon sunlight is falling on an upright piano. Through the window I see the front porch, the one with the sizable gash in its floor, a vivid reminder of the night of Jan. 30, 1956, when the parsonage was firebombed. King's wife and a friend were in the parlor with the pecans and doilies, his 10-week-old daughter asleep in a crib in the next room. If you look at the house now, with all its cozy, homey details, at first it's almost impossible to imagine a bomb blowing a hole in the living room, the family within barely escaping death. But then you remember that this is Alabama, a place where history has a way of happening anywhere.

"This is not the actual phone where they received the harassing phone calls," Cherry explains, "but it would have looked just like this." On a table in the hallway, a black Bell rotary phone just like this one used to receive 30 to 40 threatening calls a day, so many that an extra line had to be added in King's study. There I see a desk, a hat rack and a record player with jazz albums King loved and shelves full of books. (Well, not full exactly. "Write in your article that we need pre-1960-copyright books to put on display," Cherry tells me. "They can send them to me.")

And then we come to the kitchen. Cherry sighs. "This is the room you have to see," she says softly, her eyes wandering from the Maytag hand-cranked washing machine in the corner to the Hot Shot bug spray in the pantry to the vintage canisters to King's own teakettle on the stove, at last settling on the modest kitchen table in the center of the room.

"Nobody's teaching the young people about how they got to where they are," she says, staring at the four settings of blue Melmac dishes. "It's not just history. It's a way of saying, 'You can do anything if you try.' I've had my share of trials, but then I think of Dr. King and those harassing phone calls."

Cherry embarks on a story about a January evening just a few days before the parsonage was bombed. "That night he got a particularly troubling phone call. He was called names I won't repeat."

Although it was late and he was exhausted, King found himself unable to sleep. "He came in this kitchen and made a cup of coffee and sat right here."

Cherry pulls out the chair at the head of the table and sits down herself. "He put his head in his hands like this and said, 'God, fears are creeping up my soul.' " She looks up from her hands. "Fears of the body are one thing, but these were fears of the soul."

As he recounted in his autobiography, King, alone in this kitchen, confessed that he was losing his courage. "I am at the end of my powers," he remembered praying. "I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone."

And then, as Cherry puts it, King had "an epiphany. God came to him and said, 'Martin Luther, I'll be with you.' "

The sun is now low in the sky, and the ancient hot water heater is making clicking sounds from somewhere. Cherry stands up and carefully pushes the chair into the table.

"If Dr. King could go on," she says, "so can I."

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