Thursday, November 22, 2018

Montgomery to Selma...and Then Some

After a lunch, Bruce, Martha, and I put the town of Selma into the GPS.  Our plan was to do the Voting Rights Trail backwards, driving from Montgomery to its starting place, the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma. The church is just a few blocks from Selma’s famous Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Even today the trip is largely rural.

Mid-trip, we stopped at the National Park Service’s Visitors’ Center. The enormous parking lot had so few cars in it, I wondered if the place were even open.

I wasn’t too familiar with the story of civil rights activists trying to walk from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, demanding equal access to the polls. Sure, I’d seen the famous film of the police dispersing marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge.

In a large swath of the U.S., from the end of the Civil War until the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the right to vote was pretty much limited to white folks. In 1960, eighty percent of the residents in Lowndes County, Alabama were African-American and not a single one was registered to vote. Not even one! However, 117% of the eligible white voters had registered. In the early 1960s, the right to vote became a focal point of the civil rights movement.

Marchers from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other groups endured tear gas, beatings from the police, and nasty police dogs as they exercised their right to protest non-violently. With protection from the Federal government, the marchers—whose numbers had swelled to 25,000— finally made it from Selma to Montgomery on the their third try.

As I checked out the exhibits, I became a little embarrassed that voting for me has never been a problem. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever waited in a line of more than three or four people to vote.  The whole process takes five or ten minutes. The idea that another American would have to march 54 miles just for a chance to have his or her voice heard via the ballot box is astonishing.

When we were finished at the visitors' center, we drove on to Selma. 

The Edmund Pettus Bridge still marks the entrance to Selma.

The passage of the Voting Rights Act is noted by a marker at the end of the bridge.

Brown Chapel AME Church isn't far from the bridge. 

We walked around Selma for a little bit.

Time seems to have passed the town by.

Time wasn't going to pass us by, we still had things to see!

From Selma, we continued on to Marbury to see its Confederate cemetery. The website for Confederate Memorial Park said that it closed at dusk. We figured we’d get there with a little time to spare.

We were almost to Marbury when we stopped for coffee at a modern looking gas station/convenience store. I'd already stopped at one that was right out of The Waltons and it had no coffee. Budweiser pounders yes, coffee no.

The clerk, a woman who should moonlight as a Loretta Lynn impersonator, had just started a fresh pot of java when I walked in. She assured me that it would just be a minute and I said I’d wait. It wasn’t as if those dead Confederates were going anywhere.

After two customers came in to buy lottery tickets, Loretta Lynn's doppelganger, not recognizing me from a wanted poster, came out from behind the counter to chat me up while the coffee brewed. Her accent was as thick as the bulletproof glass that protected her and her inventory of cigarettes and scratch-off tickets. I suggested that I could just stick my cup under the stream of coffee to get a head start on things. She wasn’t having any of it.

I knew not to argue; the thought had crossed my mind that the bulletproof glass might be there to protect me from her. I could see her going all Dirty Harry on someone who tried to hurry the Maxwell House along, as she urged caffeine-starved and jittery Yankees to go ahead and make her day.

At last, coffee stopped streaming into the pot, signaling that it was done. I carried Styrofoam cups for Martha and me over to the coffee maker.

That’s when I saw them.


I said, “Uh, you know, you have a few ants here?” trying to be as nonchalant as possible.

The understatement of the Deep South--the one that rebranded the Civil War as "The Recent Unpleasantness"--was rubbing off on me.

A New Yorker would have said, “Jesus H. Christ, what’s with the fucking ant farm?! They're all over the goddamned place!!”

There were at least a zillion ants walking around that coffee maker. Maybe even two zillion; I didn't want to count.

If this had been a cartoon, the ants would be carrying off the store's stash of Hostess Twinkies. No amount of bulletproof glass would stop them.

“Oh, they’re comin’ in again” she replied as if she were referring to cows coming back to the barn for their afternoon milking. Her tone said that it was perfectly normal for a convenience store to be overrun with ants.

I’d already paid for my coffee. Running out of the place without it would have been rude. In fact, it might have risen to the level of a microaggression, though this exact situation wasn’t covered in my recent diversity training.

While the ants were everywhere, they didn’t seem to be on the coffee maker itself. That’s what I chose to believe anyway.

I was desperate enough for my afternoon Joe that I decided to take my chances with a few ants in my coffee. I'm sure they're considered a delicacy someplace. Someplace I've never heard of, I mean.

Before I got into the car with the coffee, I shook myself the way a dog would shake after a dip in a farm pond. In theory this would have any shaken ants off me, but in reality, I only demonstrated that it was a good thing I didn't have my heart set on a career in dance.

It was close to dusk when we arrived at the Confederate Memorial Park, on the site of the former Alabama Confederate Soldiers Home. The home was built in 1902 for indigent Confederate veterans and their wives.  The last vet died in 1934, but the facility stayed open until 1939 when the last few widows moved to other locations.

The carving on the marble tombstones has long since become impossible to read. 

Fortunately, the State of Alabama had replaced each marker with an in-ground marker made of granite.

Lots of the tombstones had coins left on them. Snopes says that the stuff about coins on tombstones is hokum. They're just coins. In other words, finding a Kennedy half-dollar on a tombstone doesn’t mean that the person who left it there was with the deceased when they heard about JFK’s assassination and so on.

After we had wandered around it became too dark to take photos and it was time to drive back to Birmingham.

I drove up to the cemetery gates.

They were closed.

Holy crap!

And not only were they shut, they were padlocked.

With a really big, we-mean-business, sort of padlock.

Yes, We were locked inside a Confederate cemetery in East Jesus, night.

It wasn’t a good place to be for a Yankee, a Democrat, and a homo…not to mention for Bruce and Martha.

Martha tried to call the cemetery office, but she got a recording. No one works late at Confederate cemetery on a Friday night.

I considered calling 911. However, waiting for some sort of local cop to notice that we weren't from around there, were we, and then go on tell us that we were in a heap of trouble before asking if the movie Deliverance meant anything to me was not high on my list of things to do.

The cemetery was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, and I hoped there might be a break in it. I walked along the fence to see if there might be another way out.

When I saw two fence posts smack dab next to each other, connected by a loop of wire, I let out a little yay. And then I thanked my father, may he rest in peace, for taking me hunting on a ranch in South Dakota when I was 12 years old. I never appreciated that trip at any time in the last 49 years the way I did in that very moment. Because of that trip, I knew what a gate in a wire fence looked like and how to open one. The gate could have been easily overlooked, especially by a city slicker of the Yankee, Democrat, and homo variety.

I squeezed the two fence posts closer together with my body and removed the loop of wire holding the posts together. I moved the barbed wire gate aside so that there was plenty of room for me to drive across the lawn, through the opening in the fence, and out of the cemetery.

I went back to the car, really, really, pleased with myself. In fact, in my entire life I’m not sure if I have ever been that pleased with myself. For at least 15 minutes (OK, maybe more) I was completely insufferable. It wasn’t my best moment ever. But I was the big hero (to myself at least) even if I'll always be the last kid picked last in gym class.

Final score:  Team Yankee-Democrat-Homo 1, Team Dead Confederacy 0.

In short order we were parked in a traffic jam on the Interstate 65 on the way back to Birmingham. We stopped, for no apparent reason, for more than an hour. Compared to the prospect of a night in a Confederate cemetery, an endless line of taillights looked pretty darned good. 

Next stop: The Barber Motorcycle Museum.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Visiting Montgomery, Part 2

After the lynching memorial, we drove around Montgomery in a bit of shock. The memorial really hits you in the gut. In theory we were trying to find a restaurant, but we didn't do very well on that score.

Instead of eating, we went on to our next planned stop, the First White House of the Confederacy.

I know what you’re thinking, how could you go from the lynching memorial to the First White House of the Confederacy? Yes, it was quite the compare and contrast moment. The lynching memorial represents how we look at our history today. The First White House of the Confederacy shows us how it was done in the past. If you are familiar with the Lost Cause idea of the Confederacy, this is Lost Cause on steroids.  I thought it might be kitschy enough to be fun.

A little history lesson is probably in order. Montgomery was the capital of the Confederacy from February 4 until May 29, 1861. Since Jefferson Davis, its president, wasn’t from Montgomery, he needed a place to live. The Confederate government leased a home for him and his family.

It’s called the First White House of the Confederacy to distinguish it from that other White House of the Confederacy, the one in Richmond. One of the Confederacy’s many failings was the failure to find an original name for its executive residence.

I don’t really know what I was expecting—a docent in a hoopskirt, I think—but I certainly wasn’t expecting to be met by an African American woman—not in a costume—when I pushed open the door. She couldn’t have been friendlier and more welcoming; my guess is that she doesn’t get many customers. She offered bottles of cold water. While I was grateful for it, I thought that food and drink were frowned upon in museums.

Just inside the front door there was a lovely photo montage of the regents of the White House Association. Regent is the term for a woman in fashionable, not sensible shoes, who headed a preservation organization a LONG time ago.

The First White House of the Confederacy was built between 1832 and 1835 by William Sayre, an ancestor of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda. In the late 19th century the newly organized United Daughters of the Confederacy adopted the idea of preserving the house.

In PR speak worthy of rebranding the Civil War as “the recent unpleasantness”, the United Daughters of the Confederacy became “entangled in personal differences” and that effort went nowhere.

Another preservation group, The White House Association, modeled after the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, eventually picked up the ball (gown) and got the job done.

Mrs. Jefferson Davis was selected as the group’s first Queen Regent. In fact, she was the group’s only Queen Regent. The post has been vacant since Mrs. Davis’ death in 1906.  The group’s current regent is Seibels Lanier Marshall (Mrs. Jim Marshall). At least I think so; the website hasn’t been updated in some time.

The house is not on its original site. It’s been moved to a place of honor across the street from the Alabama State Capitol.

In case you’re wondering, the Lurleen Wallace State Office Building isn’t too far away.

The museum was your standard issue boring house museum.  If you are into 19th century decorative arts, it might be your thing. On the ground floor there was little to ooh and aah over for the true Davis groupie; most of the furniture did not belong to the Davis family. If you are looking for the desk where Varina Davis wrote her husband’s honey-do list (e.g. 1. Defeat Union 2. Have slaves clean gutters 3. Take Jefferson Jr. for haircut), skip the ground floor.

The real mother lode is upstairs in a room chock full of cases filled with relics.

The sacred relics are in cases that look as if they haven’t been freshened since the death of Regent Mrs. Jesse Drew Beale in 1905. Although this wasn’t mentioned at the tour, she was mother-in-law of Edith Ewing Bouvier “Big Edie” Beale and grandmother Edith Bouvier “Little Edie” Beale, relatives of Jackie O made famous in the cult movie Grey Gardens.

One of my favorite artifacts was Mrs. Davis’ lorgnette.

But the coffee cups from the Sultan of Turkey were nice too... was Jefferson Davis' pith helmet...

...and the rosary made by Varina Davis from her daughter's hair.

OK, perhaps the place really is as creepy as Grey Gardens, just without the cats, raccoons, Little Edie singing, and so on.

Interestingly enough the house is closed on June 5 for Jefferson Davis’ birthday.

It’s all kitschy and creepy and for a history geek like me, fun. Even if they don’t mention that Jackie O was Non-Queen Regent Jesse Drew Beale’s people.

So, if kitschy and creepy, old-fashioned Lost Cause house museums are your thing, go. Otherwise, it’s probably ok to move it down to the list of second tier Montgomery attractions.

At the end of our visit the docent was very helpful in pointing us towards the F. Scott Fitzgerald Museum.  It was in a neighborhood not too far from downtown Montgomery.

Literary types know that F. Scott Fitzgerald was from St. Paul, Minnesota, but his wife, the former Zelda Sayre, was from Montgomery. This particular museum (and I use the term lightly) claims to be the only museum dedicated to the Fitzgeralds.

My first clue that something was up was the state of the driveway.

I think the Ho Chi Minh Trail might have been in better shape when it was being pounded daily by bombs dropped by B-52s. Seriously, you could twist an ankle walking up to the front door.

The house is an extra large bungalow. Not something I expected to find in Montgomery, but surprises seemed to be the order of the day.

The front door was dirty and in bad repair. It didn’t need just a little tender loving care, it needed a full work up at the Mayo Clinic.

The Fitzgeralds lived in the house slightly longer than the Davis family lived in the First White House of the Confederacy. Unfortunately for us, they left even less of a mark on their house than the Davis family did.

The interior looked as if someone bought an old fraternity house, took the furniture out, framed issues of old Life magazines, hung those on the walls, and called it a day.

We were subjected to a video (judging by the hairstyles, VHS-era) that we watched with two other tourists/victims and then we were free to walk around and check out the exhibits.

As far as actual Fitzgerald memorabilia, there wasn’t much.  Once again, there is no sacred desk and honey-do list (1. Write the Great American novel (again). 2. Buy booze 3. Buy more booze).

A highlight of the collection was Zelda Fitzgerald’s cigarette holder.

There was also a nice 1920s vintage toaster that didn’t seem to have belonged to anyone in particular. In the immortal words of Dave Barry, I am not making this up.

And what’s worse, Scott and Zelda were in no way related to Jackie O, Jackie Chan, or even Jackie Collins.

After about 10 minutes of looking at copies of newspapers and still photos of the 1974 film version of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, we’d had enough. I thought I might actually detach a retina due to excessive eye rolling.

The rather listless person in charge came around and said that we could go online to pay the admission fee. Yeah, I was going to get right on that.

In short, it was easily the worst “museum” I’ve been to in a very long time.

Somewhat by accident we found a fantastic place for lunch in Montgomery’s outer 'burbs. How could we not stop at a place called Little Donkey?

After a great lunch, we were on our way to Selma and the next stop on our trip.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Visiting Montgomery, Part 1

The morning after our encounter with Vulcan, we were up and at ‘em early so that we could have breakfast and be on the road to Montgomery.

We walked down the street to the Salem’s Diner, which according to someone someplace, was the number one diner in Alabama.

I’m sort of a strict constructionist when it comes to diners. They are a purpose-built diner (preferably with lots of stainless steel) or a converted railroad car. Something in a strip mall, while it may have many diner-like qualities (Formica booths, a counter, plain food, sassy waitresses) is not a diner.

And so, for me, at least, the Salem’s Diner wasn’t a diner. But it was diner-ish. Formica booths, check; counter, check; plain food, check. But it was so small that there was only one sassy waitress. I think there were four booths and as many stools at the counter.

What it lacked in size, it made up in character. The walls were covered, salon style, with vintage sports memorabilia, including someone’s golf score card. As the architect Robert Venturi said, “less is a bore” and this was far from boring.

If there was a blank spot on the wall, someone pounded a nail into it and hung a picture there.

What I know about Alabama and Auburn sports you can put in a thimble, but Salem’s Diner seemed like a good place to be if you were a fan. The owner’s father was the late (as of 2001) Ed Salem, a big deal on the University of Alabama’s 1950 football team. He went on to play for a year for the Washington Redskins and in the Canadian Football League.

Interestingly enough, the place is famous for Philly cheesesteaks. As a Pennsylvanian, I scoffed. And now that I’m back home in Pennsylvania, I’m still scoffing. This would be like a restaurant in Lancaster, Pennsylvania being famous for its grits.

Cheesesteak claims aside, I loved the atmosphere, in large part due to the gaggle of jolly, aging jocks that seemed to fill every booth and stool in the place.

Our waitress was great too, just the right combo of friendly and sassy.

Bruce and I had eggs, and they were quite good.

Martha’s pancakes, on the other hand, were cold.

I hope that it was just an off day. In theory at least, there are days when neither Alabama nor Auburn wins. Martha’s day breakfast wise, this was one of those days.

After breakfast we fired up the GPS and pointed our rental car towards Montgomery.

We had tickets to see the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

The memorial is located on a six-acre site on a hill overlooking the city.

Designed by MASS Design Group in conjunction with the staff of the Equal Justice Initiative, the work is a powerful reminder of America’s sordid record of lynching and racial relations.

When the staff member at the Memorial scanned our tickets, she told us not to take selfies with, or pose with the sculptures. I’m glad that she thought we were young enough to even consider taking a selfie.

Shortly after entering the memorial, visitors come to a sculptural group by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, an artist from Ghana. It’s of a group of young Africans, nearly naked and straining at shackles, their faces wracked with fear and horror. I thought it was supposed to represent people being sold into slavery. It’s a powerful and disturbing piece, but I wasn’t expecting it since so much of the press I’ve seen is about the larger, abstract portion of the memorial.

People take selfies with this? I shook my head.

After the sculptural group, a gravel path leads up a gentle slope to the memorial. The right side of the path borders a tall concrete wall.

It’s punctuated by five very large text panels that tell the Readers’ Digest version of the story of the lynching of African-Americans in the United States in the years after the Civil War.

The central portion of the memorial is a large, open, rectangular structure. Seemingly hundreds (I didn’t count) of COR-TEN steel boxes are suspended equidistant from the ceiling. 

Each box is incised with a state name, county name, and the names and dates of all the men, women, and children who were lynched in that county.

The boxes are arranged in rings, in alphabetical order. Alabama is on the outermost ring, Virginia and West Virginia are on the innermost ring.

The floor of the memorial is a gently sloping ramp so that as audience members walk through the memorial, the first boxes you come to are at eye level and the final ones are hanging well above visitors’ heads.

On the third leg of the memorial, there are a series of plaques telling the most basic stories of lynchings. They’re grim.

Really grim.

If you’ve somehow missed our country’s difficult racial past, it’s going to hit you here.

A bench has been built into the wall in case you want to sit and reflect.

When you get to the end, visitors are invited to walk up the small grass hill that’s at the center of the memorial. The docent explained to me that instead of the lynching victim being at the center of the crowd, now the viewer would be in that spot, surrounded by the steel memorials to all the lynching victims. It’s another solemn moment.

As you leave the central portion of the memorial, the docent explains that the steel boxes lined up outside the memorial are duplicates of the hanging boxes. Starting next year, the memorial plans to start sending them, as sites are prepared, to the counties where the lynchings took place. It’s a way to bring the piece to a much wider audience.

It's a short walk from this large conceptual work to a slightly larger than life sculpture of three women by Dana King, marking  the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956.

Before reaching the exit, visitors walk by an abstract sculptural work by Hank Willis Thomas and a stone slab bearing the poem Invocation by Elizabeth Alexander.

The central portion memorial is quite powerful, but I think it would have been more so if the sculptural works outside the main body of the memorial had been erected at a different site. I was reminded of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial and how Ross Perot and others insisted on adding some representational statuary to the ensemble. The abstract work is quite capable of standing alone.

After visiting the Memorial, we went to the EJI Museum which is a short drive away in downtown Montgomery. I was glad that we had purchased tickets in advance. It was crowded. The ticket taker asked for our zip codes and remarked that most of their visitors aren’t from the local area. She reminded us that we weren’t to take photos inside the museum.

The museum is mostly text panels and some video installation, very slick and au courant. I don’t recall that there were lots of works of art or original documents.

The ban on photos had to be about ensuring a good visitor experience when there is a large crowd. (Thank you Google for the photos!) The place was packed. The story the museum told about slavery, the Jim Crow era, and today’s civil rights struggle is shocking at times. I thought I was well versed and informed on the topic, but I was wrong.

We read and see videos about atrocities committed by ISIS or the Taliban or some other group of people and tend to think, oh, we’re not like that. Unfortunately, we are just like that.

Before going the memorial, I read about a lynching that look place in Charlottesville in 1898, just down the road from my old apartment. As horrible as it was, it pales in comparison to the story of Mary Turner, lynched in Georgia in 1918. As the cartoonist Walt Kelly said, I have met the enemy and he is us. 

On the way to the car, I made a brief stop at the bookstore. I know I’ve never been to a museum store with merch so attractively priced. The Equal Justice Initiative really wants visitors to buy its books, mugs, t-shirts, and to share its story. Its hope is that we learn from our troubled racial past (and present). I couldn't agree more.