History Amid The Magnolias


The rain came down steadily, at times in torrents, other times in a chilly drizzle under leaden skies. But the legions of marchers on their way from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to commemorate the recent 50th anniversary of that legendary civil rights march were undaunted by a little precipitation.

As my husband, Oggi, and I pulled into the Alabama state capital on our cross-country road trip, the energy was palpable. Roads were closed; signs announcing the 50th anniversary events were all over Montgomery; and local radio covered the events with pride during this Southern town’s moment in the spotlight, if not exactly the sun.

Montgomery, Alabama’s second-largest city, earned a place in history for its pivotal role in two distinctly antipodean eras. In 1861, this was the first capital of the 19th-century Confederacy, a pro-slavery rebel state; a century later, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. made history here in helping galvanize the civil rights movement, which sought to undo slavery’s lingering legacy.

Within a few minutes, you can stroll from the First White House of the Confederacy to the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered sermons as pastor in the 1950s.

There’s an obvious irony in the juxtaposition of the Confederacy and the celebration of civil rights — but also a pleasing symmetry, giving Montgomery the feel of a place that has come full circle. Adding to this sense is the ongoing revitalization of the city’s downtown along the Alabama River — including spruced-up institutions and a waterfront park — where people can not only contemplate history, but also enjoy the spring breezes in a charming Southern town.

Most of Montgomery’s noteworthy sights are located on the elegant blocks between the State Capitol and the river. These include the Dexter Avenue Church, a soaring red-brick structure, and the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, where an immersive reenactment of the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott engages visitors of all ages with the drama of protest.

Nearby, adjacent to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Civil Rights Memorial is a literal touchstone for thousands who make the civil-rights pilgrimage each year. Designer Maya Lin’s immense black-granite disc is a table that overflows with water, inviting witnesses to contemplate the names of martyrs and the dates of major events engraved there. Another wall curves upward, inscribed with King’s memorable invocation of the biblical phrase: “…until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Throughout April, visitors can join in free walking tours of Montgomery’s seminal sites, led by locals who share their personal memories of the civil-rights era. These include some Jews who recall the roles played by many of their brethren — supporting the bus boycott, sermonizing at temple in favor of integration and publicly advocating for civil rights. This Jewish involvement posed considerable risk to their own position in a majority-Christian community, with some neighbors associating Jewish civil rights supporters with Communism and other countercultural currents.

Particularly prominent in the movement, I learned, were the Sephardic temple Etz Ahayem and the Reform Temple Beth Or, both of which today remain proud exponents of the Alabama Jewish legacy. And like so much in Montgomery, the city’s Jewish history has deep roots in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Today’s Agudath Israel Etz Ahayem is the result of a 2001 merger between Etz Ahayem, a Sephardic congregation formed in 1912 by Ladino-speaking immigrants, and Agudath Israel, a Conservative temple founded in 1902. Temple Beth Or, which dates to the mid-19th century, has occupied a succession of notable buildings; its original 1862 brick edifice, now the Catoma Street Church of Christ in downtown Montgomery, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Yankee in me bristled at the idea of touring the First White House of the Confederacy, erstwhile home to President Jefferson Davis. After all, my Union ancestors fought to overthrow the movement that made first Montgomery, and then Richmond, rivals to Washington. But the White House — set amid shady trees on the city green — is an artifact of antebellum décor as well as an oddity of history. Vintage rooms exemplify the style of the period with velvet settees, lace curtains and lots of curved mahogany.

Oggi and I missed the annual birthday parties for Robert E. Lee (Jan. 19) and Jeff Davis (June 3), when visitors to the White House are treated to cake and speeches in homage to Southern glory. But it was just as well. Outside, as magnolias burst into bloom and crowds gathered to celebrate a more progressive era, we could feel spring stirring in the air.