Heroes and Martyrs
Nov 24, 2008
|“The March Continues - Monday, November 24
From now on when anyone asks me to name the best experience of this, or any other trip, I will no longer have to equivocate. My automatic response will be, “Montgomery, Alabama”.
That’s a strange answer for a Yankee who distrusts the south and could never feel at home here. But that is my answer and it probably always will be. There are days in our lives that shape and define us, and this was such a day for me.
Back in 1955 Montgomery, Alabama was defined by a thirteen month Bus Boycott, a collective act of civil disobedience that struck at the very foundations of the city’s segregation laws. An act of monumental courage and endurance, the boycott gave birth to the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60’s. The spark that set off this social and political conflagration was a diminutive black woman named Rosa Parks.
On a cold December night in 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a city bus. She was on her way home from work, and she had no thought of causing trouble when she boarded. As the bus proceeded on it’s route it began to fill, and soon there was standing room only. At the corner where the Rosa Parks Library and Museum now stands, the white bus driver told Rosa Parks to get up and give her seat to a white passenger. Rosa Parks said, “No” and this country would never be the same again.
The driver made his demand again, and when she said “No” again he told her he would have her arrested. Her response was “You may do that.” At that the exasperated driver got off the bus and went to phone the police. When the police arrived they arrested Rosa and took her to jail, refusing at first to even let her make a phone call. When they finally allowed her a call she phoned a friend and fellow member of the NAACP. He went to the jail with a lawyer, and they posted Rosa’s bail and drove her home. That night word of the arrest spread throughout the black community, and by morning one woman was already at work on a plan to use the arrest to stir up a boycott of the city’s busses.
No one initially thought that the boycott would last more than a year, but it turned into an endurance contest that pitted the black community against all the intimidation the city could bring to bear. Montgomery’s police and politicians did everything they could to break the boycott, and racists throughout the city threatened and often attacked black people. Martin Luther King Jr. was a virtual unknown at the beginning of the boycott, but he was drawn into a position of leadership and before it was over his home was bombed.
In the end the United States Supreme Court declared segregation to be unconstitutional, and the boycott ended in December of 1956 when the City of Montgomery and the bus company agreed to let blacks sit anywhere they wished, and that they did not have to give up their seats to anyone. Ironically the bus stops were still segregated, and the Civil Rights Movement was just getting started. Blacks still had a long and dangerously ugly road to travel before the Civil Rights Act finally struck down the last vestiges of segregation.
The Rosa Parks Museum is a masterpiece of modern and brilliant presentation. The reenactment of her first arrest is shown through the windows of a vintage city bus, and from the first photograph to the final video the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is told with unflinching honesty and a moving poignancy. The young man who ushered us in at the beginning told us it would take us about half an hour to ‘do’ the museum. Two hours later we had to hurry to get back to our RV before the parking meters ran out. Every minute was worthwhile, and it was an experience never to be forgotten.
But this day was nowhere near over, for a few blocks away is the Civil Rights Memorial Center. This shrine tells the story of what happened after the Montgomery bus boycott, and it is dedicated to 40 heroes and martyrs who gave their lives in the cause of freedom. This is where the story gets really ugly, where innocent children are murdered and where the apostle of non-violence, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is killed for his work.
The stories are an affront to humanity, and reading them brings anguish for the victims and rage at the murderers. This is not an easy exhibit to visit. It hurts and it haunts, and it leaves us shaken that such evil could exist in a civilized country. But for all it’s self indulgence the south is only now becoming civilized, and murder dates from the past decade show it still has a long way to go.
The indoor exhibits end with a wall of names, not victims this time - but people who have committed themselves to stand up against hatred and bigotry wherever they find it. A quotation proclaims “We must take sides” and I am reminded of the words of Malcolm X who said ‘If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” There is no neutral place, no honorable middle ground. I took sides long ago, but on this day I added my name to the wall.
Outside the Memorial itself is a thing of beauty, designed by Maya Lin who gave us the Vietnam Memorial. It is a pool of water with the names of the forty martyrs inscribed in a circle around it. She left a space between the first and last names to signify that the struggle began long before the first name died, and continues after the last name died. But Maya Lin insists “This is not a monument to suffering, it is a memorial to hope.”
To that end she included a waterfall, and she inscribed it with a quote from Dr. King. “ . . .UNTIL JUSTICE ROLLS DOWN LIKE WATERS AND RIGHTEOUSNESS LIKE A MIGHTY STREAM”