Before we left town on Sunday, we took a walk around the town center. Montgomery is the state capital city of Alabama, and, briefly in 1861, served as the capital of the early seven state Confederacy. It is also the home of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King was pastor from 1954 to 1960.
This makes for a compression of history the like of which takes a little bit of getting used to. The first organization of the seceding States that led to the deadly Civil War 150 years ago took place in these grand buildings. Ninety years later across the street and in the basement of the Baptist Church, Dr. King was helping organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott that was an early and pivotal event in the U.S. civil rights movement.
Two radically oppositional movements, one striving to maintain the slave-dependent social and economic system that had brought the south its great wealth, the other striving to banish the last institutions of racial segregation.
One battle lost and one battle won.
Both with loss of life – many, many lives in that great war and far fewer but still just as painful losses in the struggle for civil justice. Those latter names are inscribed on a beautiful circular memorial outside the Civil Rights Memorial Center, perpetually washed with clear, cool water.
A good distance away, gazing fixedly towards that memorial stands the statue of the first and only President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis.
What would he have made of such a thing? His dream of an independent, slave-owning, state fell after four years of bloody war and the laying waste of much of the South. If he had prevailed, would slavery have been sustained? The rest of the Western world was moving on. Setting aside any moral considerations, the industrial revolution was transforming societies. A fixed, immobile, agrarian economy would have been doomed by the changing dynamics of labor – free men would want work, and why would they tolerate a system whereby a small group of men exploited the labor of cheap slaves and thereby denied them that work? Even the most rigidly conservative system would have to bend eventually as wealth, prosperity and influence accumulated in a dynamic north and waned in an impoverished south. 'King Cotton' would have been deposed, war or no war, by overseas competition and the whole basis of the antebellum South's wealth would have been lost.Did Jefferson and his compatriots meeting in this charming White House even consider such an eventuality in those heady days of the first secessions? Shortly, four more states would join the Confederacy and the capital would move to the far less secure city of Richmond, Virginia. The South would claim my state, Missouri, for its own with the approval of rural Missourians and against the wishes of urban Missourians and the legislature (but not the Governor), leading to a bloody and merciless state civil war within a national civil war that created a deep distrust between the cities and the countryside that persists to this day.Walking around these great buildings, up the steps of the Alabama Capitol Building, past Dr. King's church, it was impossible to stop thoughts such as these race through my head.
Most of all, though, I thought of the dead.