'God Picked Montgomery To Make It an . . . Image of Injustice to Black People' A Letter from Montgomery, Ala.

February 14, 1993|By THOMAS W. WALDRON

MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA — Montgomery, Ala. -- The Rev. Solomon Seay Sr., one of Montgomery's many famous pastors, said only God could have made this droopy city famous.

"God picked Montgomery to make it an international image of injustice to black people in America," the late Rev. Seay once said. "I love my city, but my city has come a long way, and my city still has some ways to go."

The last several years have not been kind to Montgomery. Except for the state Capitol complex, downtown is mostly a wasteland, with long blocks of abandoned storefronts and empty sidewalks.

But, a trip to Montgomery is an excursion to a kind of civil rights theme park.

There's the Capitol where George Wallace vowed "Segregation Forever." Just down Dexter Avenue is Martin Luther King Jr.'s old church, the launching pad for the Montgomery bus boycott. And over on South Court Street is the Greyhound station where a bloody riot took place when a group of 21 Freedom Riders rolled into town in 1961.

Like much of the South, Montgomery is making gestures toward its history. A serene civil rights memorial graces Washington Avenue. Up in Birmingham, they recently opened a civil rights museum. The jarring thing about all these memorials, though, is that many of the folks who made the civil rights movement happen are still here.

Over at the federal courthouse, for example, Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. is still hearing cases at the age of 74. The only difference is that they named the courthouse after him last year.

That's what happens with time. A couple decades ago, most of the white community shunned him, the Ku Klux Klan threatened to kill him and Governor Wallace, a law school classmate, denounced him as "an integrating, scalawagging, carpet-bagging, race-mixing, bald-faced liar" for his string of crucial anti-segregation opinions.

Mr. Johnson, now a semi-retired appellate judge, still spends time in his quiet office on the fourth floor of the Greek revival building. The judge walks slowly through the carpeted suite, wearing a wrinkled shirt and no tie.

A biography of the judge just came out. "Mrs. Johnson read it. She said it was fine," he says, except for the chapter about their son, a suicide victim.

I ask if he remembers my father, a reporter who roamed the South years ago.

The judge sighs and shakes his head, no. "There were so many reporters," he says.

Two floors below, in the same courtroom where Judge Johnson used to hear cases, some familiar faces from the civil rights struggle are doing battle again.

The issues this time, though, are mainly sex and money.

A beautiful woman -- the Rev. Venus Longmire -- is suing Leon Howard, the toppled president of Alabama State University, for alleged sexual harassment. It is an ugly trial, filled with graphic accounts of sexual encounters, admissions of infidelity and charges of blackmail and extortion.

On Ms. Longmire's side sits J. L. Chestnut Jr., the first black attorney in the nearby town of Selma and a front-row participant in all of Selma's bloody civil rights history.

He's stocky and balding, but Mr. Chestnut, 62, dominates the courtroom. His arms and head move dramatically as he talks. His deep voice oozes Black Belt richness, making stops on each syllable of words such as "res-ti-TU-tion." Mr. Chestnut makes all his points with his questions. The witness becomes almost irrelevant.

Leading the team is Rose Sanders, Mr. Chestnut's partner, a fiery Harvard Law School graduate and tireless organizer in Selma for the last two decades.

On the other side is Solomon S. Seay Jr., son of the famous pastor, himself one of the first black attorneys in Alabama. Now, he is personifies the establishment as counsel for Alabama State.

The comparisons to the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas encounter are obvious: two well-educated blacks thrashing out their private encounters in public.

It is a painful spectacle. Alabama State University is black Montgomery's most cherished institution, and the scandal has brought nothing but embarrassment for the last two years.

It is particularly painful for Ms. Sanders. "I was very reluctant to proceed against a black institution," she explains.

She took the case, though, when her old civil rights instincts kicked in.

"She had no one who would help her," says Ms. Sanders. "I had to do it."

As the trial dragged on, a report on television gave a hint of just how far this area has come and how far it has to go. The Kappa Alpha fraternity boys at Auburn University -- just up the road from Montgomery -- announced they were canceling their annual march through campus dressed in Confederate uniforms.

"I loved that ceremony. It's part of our heritage," the handsome president of the fraternity says. "But, times change. I think this will prove we're not racist."

The president adds one other thing: The ceremonies won't take place in public this year. Rather, they'll be held in the fraternity house -- behind closed doors.

Thomas Waldron is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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