Efforts build to memorialize King's legacy

In Montgomery, Ala., projects aim to preserve the civil rights movement

January 20, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Fairview Plaza is a dingy strip mall near Interstate 65 at the city's edge. But one day, state officials predict, throngs will come to revisit a key point in the civil rights movement.

Alabama plans to buy the mall for $2 million to make way for a federally run visitors center. The state also has set aside $1 million to preserve the real draw - the nearby field where participants in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting-rights march camped the night before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led them to the state Capitol.

The center could take several years to complete, but the eventual goal will be to welcome 800,000 visitors a year. "If we're successful, this site is going to operate like a giant vacuum cleaner sucking cars off the interstate," said Lee Warner, director of the Alabama Historical Commission.

Throughout the city where King made his name a half-century ago as a young civil rights leader, landmarks in the struggle for racial equality are being preserved, renovated or expanded. Projects expected to cost more than $25 million are under way or expected to start in coming years, and observers say the results will bring the civil rights movement to life for a new generation.

"No city has as much history or is doing as much with it," said Jim Carrier, a former reporter who lives here and is writing a book on civil rights landmarks. "It's going to be a major industry here. Right now we're just cranking up."

Montgomery played early roles in two of the nation's greatest upheavals: the Civil War and civil rights movement.

You can stand in one spot and see where Confederate President Jefferson Davis sent the telegram in 1861 ordering Southern troops to fire on Fort Sumter, S.C., the opening shot of the Civil War, and see where Rosa Parks began her famous bus ride nearly a century later in 1955. Her refusal to give up her seat to a white man spawned a boycott, launching the civil rights movement and bringing King to prominence.

But until recently, most of the public homage in the city was paid to the Confederacy. Only last year did the City Council take Montgomery's motto, "Cradle of the Confederacy," and add "Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement."

There is no entity coordinating the numerous new projects commemorating the civil rights era, no one factor driving the trend. But a major impetus is the 50th anniversary of the bus boycott in 2005. Another aim is to cash in on the growth of heritage tourism.

Major projects include:

Visitors centers at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and its parsonage several blocks away, and new exhibits in the church where King preached.

An interpretative center about the Freedom Rides at the dormant Greyhound bus station downtown, where passengers were beaten for testing court orders to integrate bus stations.

An expansion of the 2- year-old Rosa Parks Museum at Troy State University.

Markers on the Capitol grounds, which are now dominated by a Confederate memorial and related statues.

Also, the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, best known for winning damages in lawsuits against the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists, is creating a $2 million interactive center focused on fighting hate in any guise.

`A lot of effort recently'

Carrier, for one, chafes at how long it has taken to reach this point. Although the Jim Crow laws have long been repealed, schools and neighborhoods are still largely black or white, as is the case in many American cities with substantial minority populations.

Others with deep roots here take a long view. The tumult of the 1950s and 1960s was so great, they say, that a few decades amount to the blink of an eye.

"History takes time to evolve," said the Rev. Michael Thurman of the Dexter Avenue church, sitting in an office little changed since King's day.

It was not until 33 years after the Civil War ended that the soaring Confederate Memorial was dedicated next to the bone-white Capitol, Warner pointed out. The establishment of new civil rights memorials seems to be following a similar timetable, he said.

"Rather than say, `Why did it take so long?' what we should say is, `Now is the time for it,'" Warner said.

"There has been a lot of effort recently to make up for the neglect of the civil rights movement," said Derryn Moten, associate professor of humanities at Alabama State University, stressing that the fight "for equal justice" is still not over.

The changes extend beyond Montgomery. Last year in Oxford, Miss., a marker was planted to commemorate James Meredith's integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962 as the first black student and rioting by whites.

Also, a $150,000 civil rights memorial is being built on the campus, whose student body is 13 percent black. The idea arose after a group of students realized that campus symbols were not "inclusive," said Susan Glisson, director of the university's Institute for Racial Reconciliation.

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