American Sabbatical 86: 4/5/97

Civil Rights

4/5.. Monroeville.

Breakfast at Joe and Pat’s again featured fresh baking, and we decided we’d better escape quickly, before we begged to be adopted. We put on our feathers and started to beat wings out of Fairhope. But which way?

The thought of more flatlands, or holiday crowds, made arriving in New Orleans this week less tantalizing than it had been. Hills and backroads beckoned sweetly. Peggy wanted to visit Monroeville, Alabama, where Harper Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s about an hour’s drive northeast of Mobile. Maybe it was time to zig. A hard southerly was thrashing the trees, so we turned our backs to it and blew upcountry.

We stopped on the way to visit Momma Dot at a hospital in Daphne, just up the Mobile Bay shore. She was eager to talk to Peggy, but was scheduled for therapy, so we unbagged our laundry at a local suds-and-spin, and endured the ennui of watching fabrics tumble. Then Peggy and Dot traded teacher-talk for a couple of hours.

By the time we cleared Mobile Bay the ceiling was brushing our hairdos, walls of turbulent black clouds were moving in on us, and scattered drops splattered Owl’s face. We sidestepped onto the sideroads, and the country, even in this ominous light, was beautiful. Nobody warned us that Alabama can seduce you with her passionate vegetation, and the roll of her hills. And armadillos? Had we been advised about armadillos?

I’d imagined sharecroppers shacks, worn out cotton land, holloweyed crackers, and mean dogs. Instead we get rippling green pastures, dense stands of tall hardwoods, ridgetop vistas of receding treelines, and tidy houses hunkered in shady groves. There’s rural poverty, to be sure, shotgun houses teetering on blocks, with matching parts cars, and abandoned looking tin boxes, mobile or traditional, with dooryards awash in litter. But they are infrequent. Most of the old houses are maintained with pride: the modest hiproofed single-story-with-porch, as well as the antibellum-style manses, pillars and pediments and all. And undemonstrative churches everywhere.

Gas stop in the crossroads town of Uriah. Old molded cement-block post office and general store, with silver-white metal roofs and porch awnings reaching down low to let the rain sluice wide. The very image of the old rural South. And the sky opens up.

Spring rain in Dixie. Coming straight down in torrents. We limp along, wipers slapping, working the defrost to cut the steam, then the blowers to dry the sweat. Eating oranges and peering at the roadsigns. The yellow-orange clay looks rich and oozy. The ditches run like blood.

Downpour. Then the blackness lifts and it’s just raining. Then downpour again. By the time we make Monroeville, the Courthouse Museum is closed, the town is shut up, the water is standing deep everywhere, and our slopping around in the puddles only gets our feet wet. We quarter the downtown blocks looking for scenes out of the book, visit the elementary school, and finally abandon the quest for a dry room and a warm phonejack.

(Memo #76)

April 5 Harper Lee Monroeville

Who? author of To Kill a Mockingbird

What? author’s hometown used as model for book’s setting

Where? in south central Alabama

When? Pulitzer Prize winning book set in 1930’s, written in 1960’s

How? Harper Lee drew on her own life and hometown

Topics: Southern literature, setting, fame and tourism

Questions: How accurately has Harper Lee portrayed her home town? Does the town of Monroeville capitalize on her book?

County Courthouse

I don’t know what I expected at Monroeville, Alabama, perhaps another Hannibal, Missouri. Mark Twain’s hometown has so hyped his books and characters that there are signs on Hannibal street corners explaining what Huck and Tom did nearby. The whole town seems to be involved in a conspiracy to convince visitors that the events and characters in Twain’s books were all real. Would there be Scout and Jem statues in the courthouse square in Monroeville? Would Harper Lee’s house and settings be identified on cutesy tourist maps? Would children’s overalls be described as being “like Scout’s”? How does a Pulitzer Prize winning book affect a small town in Alabama? Harper Lee’s characters and setting are so vivid and real to me (even after thirty years) that I expected to have a constant shock of recognition in her hometown.

I did research on Harper (“Nelle”) Lee before we set out on this trip. Related somehow to Robert E. Lee, she was born and raised in Monroeville where her father Amasa Lee (the model for Atticus Finch) was a lawyer. “My father is one of the few men I’ve known who has genuine humility, and it lends him a natural humility. He has absolutely no ego drive, and so he is one of the most beloved men in this part of the state.” She and her sister both studied law at the University of Alabama. Ms. Lee moved to New York City and worked for an airline while writing Mockingbird. One wonderful article photographed her in her hometown - in the balcony of the courthouse where she watched her father argue cases (like Scout) , at the Old Hodge place (a haunted house that may have been the model for the Radley home), in the schoolyard. “The trial (in the book) was a composite of all trials in the world - some in the South. But the courthouse was this one. My father’s a lawyer, so I grew up in this room, and mostly I watched him from here.” The quirky boy who comes to visit his Aunt for the summer was apparently the young Truman Capote. My research turned up no information about any other books she wrote after Mockingbird or what she did after the 1960’s. Still, it was enough to make me go to Monroeville.

We drove north to Monroeville through rolling green farmland and forests. A modern strip mall lead us toward town. As we entered the town center, we saw the old elementary school (was that the schoolyard where Scout and Jem were stalked?). We pulled into courthouse square in Monroeville just after 2 pm on a Saturday. There were few cars on the streets and many of the buildings that edge the square were empty. It was pouring rain. The museum was closed. The red brick courthouse in the center of the square was closed, but there was a sign identifying it as the setting in Ms. Lee’s book. A sign on the museum said you could buy tickets to the play of “To Kill A Mockingbird”. There was no other information (time? date?) available.

We drove back and forth around town looking for....tour signs or a bookstore featuring her book or a Mockingbird Cafe. Nothing. I began looking for old houses, haunted houses, a picturesque jail (like the one where Atticus sat to protect Tom). The Monroeville police station is right by the square but it is a large, modern, brick building
(no barred windows visible). The houses are mostly low 1930’s bungalows with deep porches. It is a quiet unremarkable town. The town square does have a Katherine Lee Rose garden with no explanation. I took a few pictures. Frustrating.

When we checked into our motel, I asked the receptionist if the town did much to note Harper Lee’s success. “Not really,” she said. “We kind of just grow up with it.” She knew nothing more about Ms. Lee. There were no tourist brochures in the motel lobby. No tram tours. No posters. No Harper Lee memorabilia. No mugs. There was a single historic postcard of the courthouse. Maybe living authors are allowed some anonymity.

Frustrated again, I decided to try the phone book. I called the museum and a tape told me tickets were still on sale but the third was sold out (it was the fifth!). There was no “H.Lee”, no “Mockingbird”. Hmm.. an “F.Lee” is practicing law (her sister?).

I guess it’s rather nice that Monroeville has resisted becoming another Hannibal. There is an argument to be made that the magic is in the book, not in the author or the hometown. Maybe it’s enough to read “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

4/6.. Selma and Montgomery.

Sunday morning and the whole state is at church. There are still some marching lines of cumulonimbus shadowing the sun, but the air feels dryer. Going to be a fine day.

Monroeville Courthouse

The Monroe County Courthouse demands that we stop one more time, and take her measure with ink and colors. A classic courthouse square, with commercial blocks on the four sides, across wide streets. The ornate clocktowered brick courthouse set among stately live oaks and careful flowerbeds.

Our Sunday journey SHOULD begin at this storied courthouse. We are going to follow traces of the Civil Rights Movement, and that battle was fought in the courts as well as in the streets. In this day when it’s easy to be cynical about special interest law for those who can afford it, we may forget that a long struggle for racial equality under the law began in petty courts like this, and culminated in such decisions as Brown vs. Board of Education. Harper Lee’s fictionalization of her father’s practice continues to remind us that justice may be found in a courtroom, and that Bull Connors isn’t the only Southern white archetype.

The Owl swoops toward Selma. The backroads seem very familiar here. It could be Maine in July. The mix of pine and hardwoods, new cars and beaters, gentle ridge and valley, good forest practice and bad. We have the roads mostly to ourselves, and flush a pair of turkeys somewhere near Beatrice. There are foothigh mounds of dirt along the shoulders, like the works of giant prairie dogs, but no residents in sight, unless the occasional roadkill armadillo is a clue. The floral speciation is totally different, of course, with many more compound leaves, and almost fernlike patterning, longleaf pines vs. the whites of home.

Instead of the sagging clapboard capes of backroad Maine there are rusty galvanized cabins with low eaves and deep porches, swallowed in kudzu. Folks are gathered in the churchyards. One a desperate old tin structure with a crooked steeple, and the cars lined up under the trees in the dirt yard. But everyone in their Sunday best, and most of the churches are as foursquare and tended as any in New England.

There IS something shabbier about rural poverty in the South, when you encounter it. It may be because the weather lets you live in a place more exposed, or it may be the building materials. A Maine house let go may lose its paint and look rustic, but galvanized siding or cinderblock just gets rusty and dingy. There isn’t our love of wickedgood paint out here in the kudzu.

Suddenly we’re driving over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and back into history. This is where Civil Rights marchers behind Martin Luther King Jr. were stopped, and America was confronted, thanks to a watching media. Another institution it’s easy to denigrate now, but where would Dr. King and the others have been without the press? How many of us remember that a French journalist was killed at Ol’ Miss during the integration riots?

Edmund Pettus Bridge

This Sunday Selma is a ghost town. Wonderful ornate storefronts empty and boarded up. Any downtown in New England as charming as this would have a health food store, a bookstore, and a gang of local artists. A place ripe for resurrection, but dozing in the sun. A few fishermen idly twitching lures in the Alabama. The low buzz of through traffic.

We follow out Broad Street to the Visitor’s Center, and Peggy gets a lecture on Disney Love Pops (“Americas best selling candy”), and the other contemporary claims to fame. As well as a walking tour guide and a map. There’s a four-block tour of voting rights history, and Peggy makes the ritual moves, while I sketch the AME Chapel in the third block, a twin-turetted brick bit of pride, trimmed in white.



Brown Chapel
Across the street is a housing project. Long single-story brick multiples. The streets and yards are full of kids and young men making converse is the hot sun. One comes over to check out my drawing. Tells me a halting tale of “a friend” who writes poems “from the heart... Has a whole book full.” But can never get them published. Can I make money with these drawings? I tell him probably not. That isn’t what they’re for. That the doing is the thing. That they’ll bring me back to this place, and this talk with him. To tell his friend to keep the faith, and read his poems to everyone who’ll listen. That’s what they’re for.

“You a man with a vision,” he said.


This community had a vision 40 years ago. And it was in the church congregations that those visions were organized. Selma has a wonderful collection of brick-steepled churches, and is proud of more that their architecture. Here again we tend to equate Southern churches with reactionary politics and hidebound prejudices. We forget that Dr. King was a preacher, and it was the churches of Selma, black AND white, that mobilized for equal justice.

Do you remember the excitement? As a high school kid I was intoxicated with the thought of a people rising up in a noble cause. Do you remember noble causes?

Peggy strode out across the Edmund Pettus while I tried to make a quick rendering. It was a revolutionary structure in its day, a steel arch like the Hell Gate RR Bridge, approached by two leaping cement arches. Another synapse where an idea crossed over, paradigms shifted.

We recrossed Edmund and followed the march route to Montgomery, heart of the heart of Dixie. If you’ve gotta walk a highway, this is a good’un. Running the ridgelines across rolling woodland and pastures, it feels like the Taconic State in the Hudson Valley, at least until you dump out into the paved exurb of the state capitol.


The capitol city itself is shut down for the day, and scrubbed down forever. They must have renewed the hell out of Montgomery. It is as sterile a monument to bureaucracy as I’ve ever seen. That ol’ George Wallace was something else. Every building is lily-white. Except for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin’s church, just a few steps away from the capitol. This modest brick antiquity must have been a thorn in the side of entrenched segregationist power. Caddycorner to the Dept. of Justice, smack in front of the rotunda stairs.

The Civil Rights Memorial is just around the corner, and you have to credit the New South for honoring all of its past. Here in the first capitol of the Confederacy, the big tourist attraction is a black marble wall with flowing waters over a quote from Dr.King. “..until justice comes flowing down like waters...”, and a black sundial fountain memorializing the events and martyrs from Brown v. Board to a day in Memphis. (And yesterday Coretta King met with James Earl Ray and said she thinks he is innocent.) An all-white gaggle of kids from Atlanta wearing T-s proclaiming “Faith Shout Chorus” were playing around the waters, while an armed white security guard watched, and their female black busdriver sat in the front of the bus, smiling.

Homicide Protest
Political protest isn’t dead in Montgomery. The Justice department lawn was covered with threefoot tall white crosses. Alabama homicide victims in 1996.

(Memo #79)

April 6 Selma & Montgomery

Who? Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, SNCC and SCLC leaders

What? cities at center of Civil Rights movement

Where? in central Alabama

When? 1950’s and 1960’s

How? a long series of events made them the focus of the civil rights movement

Topics: Civil Rights Movement, Voting Rights Movement, integration, protest marches, bus boycott

Questions: Why Selma? Why Montgomery?


Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, are much more than places on a map. They are icons of the civil rights movement, places memorialized for the courage and dignity of marchers and protesters and boycotters. Montgomery is identified with the bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks, and the state government lead by George and Lurleen Wallace. Selma is identified with the voting rights movement and the march on the capital. Many heroes of the Civil Rights Movement were active in this part of Alabama: Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Stokeley Carmichael. SNCC, the SCLC. Some people were killed during the Selma protests: James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, Jimmy Lee Jackson. Anyone over fifty will remember the stunning pictures: the boycotters walking miles to work in Montgomery, the line of marchers turned back at the Selma Bridge.

The more you delve into history, the more complex things appear. You can’t start the Selma story in 1965 when the marches occurred nor can you date Montgomery’s protests to the arrival of young Martin Luther King. Blacks and whites had been actively promoting civil rights in both cities since the Civil War and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. For a brief time after the Civil War blacks had many rights, these were destroyed by the Jim Crow segregation system that arose in the late nineteenth century. Protest has been continuous, from W.E.B. Du Bois and the Niagara Movement through the establishment of the NAACP (1910), the Urban League (1911) and CORE. CORE held sit-ins in Chicago restaurants and skating rinks in the 1940’s! In the 1950’s and 1960’s the new leaders were in the SCLC, SNCC, the Black Panthers. The movement heated up with the Supreme Court decision (Brown V. Board of Education) in 1954 which outlawed segregation in education. The Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56) was a test of segregation in transportation; the Selma marches (1963) were a test of limited voting rights. Chronologically, Montgomery came first, but we started in Selma.

Over Troubled Water
We drove into Selma over the famous Edmund Pettus bridge. Downtown is right on the other side with many empty lots and closed stores with wrought iron trim and long verandas. The town center has a number of beautiful stone churches, wide avenues, shaded residential streets. Obvious redevelopment is underway with a small park by the bridge, new brick sidewalks, and bright new historical markers.The city has created a historic walking tour based on the 1965 marches and there is a Voting Rights Museum.

I took the walking tour which went down one side of King Street a few blocks and back on the other side with information kiosks every fifty yards - I walked by the George Washington Carver Housing Complex (where civil rights workers trained and were housed), Tabernacle Baptist (where the first mass meeting was held after the ban), Brown AME chapel where King spoke, the alley which became known as the Berlin Wall when police roped it off. Afterward I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Housing Project

Why Selma? The city has been at the forefront of black activism SINCE THE CIVIL WAR. In 1867 Selma had a black policeman. The first black congressman in the nation (Benjamin S. Turner) was elected from Selma in 1870, followed by Representative Jeremiah Haralson in 1874 (who later became the first black Republican National committeeman). The county elected a black judge in 1874. The first African Methodist church in Alabama is in Selma, and several black colleges. The county had a large number of black voters in the late nineteenth century. Then in 1901 the Alabama legislature greatly limited voting eligibility and the number of registered black voters in Dallas County declined from 9871 to 52 (!) . That was really the beginning of the Voting Rights Movement.

The Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) was established in the 1930’s and its board kept the pressure on officials. In 1963 SNCC came into Selma to help with voter registration. Mass meetings were held. In July a local judge prohibited all mass meetings. The DCVL invited Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) to help. On January 2, 1965, Dr. King defied the judge’s order with a mass meeting at Brown AME church and marches were planned. Three marches took place in Selma, the third culminating in the walk from Selma to Birmingham. During the First march on March 7, 500 protester were met at the bridge by gungho Sheriff Clark and his cops. When the crowd was ordered to disperse and didn’t, the cops attacked and 65 people were injured. Dr. King called a ministers’ walk for March 9th. It was turned back. Increasing media attention focused on the city. On Sunday March 21, 3000 marchers successfully crossed the Pettus bridge. 300 continued on to Montgomery and arrived there five days later.

Brown Chapel

“Selma Alabama became a shining moment in the conscience of man” - Martin Luther King Jr.

We left Selma by the Pettus bridge and drove the fifty miles to Montgomery, following the route the marchers had taken in 1965. I had no image of the actual road and found that it is beautiful, The highway is divided and goes through rolling green farm lands.

Montgomery is a gutted city, razed by urban redevelopment. Decaying neighborhoods greeted us, then wide empty boulevards and vacant lots and spanking clean government buildings. Montgomery was quiet and empty on a Sunday afternoon. We easily found the heart of the city: the huge imposing domed state capital with Martin Luther King’s brick Dexter Street church right across the street ! I had no idea. King’s church is as close to the capital steps as Blaine House is to the Maine statehouse! What a thorn in the side of the segregationists in government Dr. King must have been. It is not obvious today where Dr. King’s congregation came from. There is no neighborhood near to the Dexter Street church today.

The Civil Rights monument is only a block away, in front of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Maya Lin designed a round black marble “table” inscribed with the names of all who died in the modern Civil Rights Movement. The table is an off center cone with its apex in the ground. Water flows evenly from the center of the table to the edge and then surface tension holds it under and down the undercut slope. Behind the table a wall of water washed a quote from Dr. King. Both images (table and water) have Biblical allusions. The monument is smaller than I expected, human scale, very beautiful. White teenagers from a Praise Shout Choral Tour were dabbling their hands in the fountain.

Civil Rights Monument

Montgomery also had a long tradition of active protesters. A women’s group had been working for civil rights and Rosa Parks was part of the local NAACP. In 1955 young Martin Luther King Jr. became minister of the Dexter Street Church. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the front of a Montgomery bus to a white man, and was arrested, King helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott. It lasted almost a year.

The bald facts (marches turned back, a one-year boycott) don’t convey the feelings and hardships of those involved. A minister from Boston (James Reeb) was beaten to death in Selma, a young man (Jimmie Lee Jackson) and a woman protester from Detroit (Viola Liuzzo) were shot. Many others were injured by police clubs - broken bones, huge bruises, heads cracked open, pain. In Montgomery blacks organized car pools and walked long distances to and from work. Some workers had to leave home before dawn to make their commute. The summer heat in Alabama on a three mile walk after a full workday must have been devastating, but the boycott endured.


The outcomes of Montgomery? The buses were integrated, followed (during the protest years) by restaurants and pools and stores and motels. Driving through the South today you are not aware of segregation except in the distinct residential neighborhoods. The outcome of Selma? In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act to guarantee suffrage to citizens. A 1968 Act reinforced the broad Civil Rights Act of 1964 barring discrimination in employment and public accommodations. Sheriff Clark was defeated in the 1966 election. In 1972 blacks were on the Selma City Council and in 1988 blacks had the majority of seats on the Selma County Commission. Selma tourist information lauds the black history of the city and the Historic Walking Tour of the voting rights movement is the best marked area we’ve seen in Alabama. Traveling through the South shows a publicly integrated society.

We had one last stop which added to our picture of the civil rights struggle. Thirty miles east of Montgomery is Tuskegee University, the black university established by Booker T. Washington. Washington is a controversial figure today because he accepted the notion of “gradualism” (slow integration) and trained black for vocational trades. Yet the university he established seems to be the center of a strong black professional community. The campus is huge and beautiful, brick buildings dot the hills and winding paths link them. There are huge shade trees and lawns and small ponds. Construction is going on in several parts of the campus. The buildings show the breadth of curriculum from the liberal arts to education and forestry. It looks like any large liberal arts college. Every adult and coed, every storekeeper we saw in Tuskegee was black.

My first teaching experience was at Hampton University, a black college in Hampton, Virginia, where I became aware of the ease there is for minorities in a minority dominated school, where the role models are mostly black and the campus organizations are run by blacks. The traditional black schools (Vanderbilt, Spellman, many A&Ms, Hampton, Tuskegee) have gone through cycles of change. Since the 1960’s, black academics and high school stars have been courted by white universities, but Tuskegee and Hampton (which we revisited in Virginia) show that black colleges are very much alive today. They may be the strongest training centers
for black professionals and political leaders.

Selma, Montgomery, Tuskegee. We ended the day with a feeling of hope.

4/6.. contd.

We beat feet.. or wings. Got swept up onto the interstate, and downloaded immediately at a fresh produce mart. Scanned in some veggies and fruit. Local vine ripe tomatoes in April. They say that it gets too hot after May for tomatoes, if you can believe it. Then we ambled along byways to Tuskeegee.

Tuskeegee is a big University, sprawling down a wooded ridge, and busy with new construction on its margins. The Booker T. Washington Museum was closed, naturally, in the Sunday style, but Booker has been badly debunked since he was the hero of our PC texts in the 50s. Favored gradualism and trade school education... all that stuff that got Xed by Malcolm.

The Owl fluttered around and about the campus.. basic college scene, except totally black. Peggy has been taking van-loads of prospective students on college tours for years, and has a keen eye for institutional detail. She was impressed by the depth of facilities, and smiled at the frat houses and sororities.

High speedbumps made our springs squeak, and the maze of roadways kept ending at a locked gate. As usual I ignored the Thou Shalt Nots and squeezed down sidewalks and byways, only to be foiled at every turn. Began to turn a little pink when the undergrads started watching us closely. I started to suspect the labyrinth was designed to confuse hostile invasions. Like the Brits removing all the roadsigns during WWII.

We made it to Dunkirk, and proceeded toward the Georgia line. Another indepth state tour: Alabama in 60 hours. Lilian to Phenix City. If our snoop gives good poop, the Heart of Dixie could steal yours, in April. The most beautiful country we’ve seen since leaving Maine, this time.

Our pit stop at sabbath’s end was in Columbus, Georgia, close to the sports complex: 5 (?) stadia all clumped together. I felt so athletic I went walking along the riverside amenity, which runs for 18 miles. I didn’t, but enjoyed ambling beside the Chattahoochee, with folks fishing on the sandy margin, cyclists whizzing past, and fellow walkers inhaling the thick sweet fragrance of the chinaberry trees in bloom. Millions of little purple flowers, whose first whiff reminds you of some flavored pipe tobacco, then the full fruity aroma floods your blood sugar. I went back to the cabana where Peggy was doing laps and waved the checkered flag at her.

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