Historic marker for the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, Rosa Parks' bus stop.

Montgomery, Alabama

Going to Montgomery

I had never thought one way or the other about going to Montgomery, Alabama, but then I got a job teaching a short cybersecurity course for Maxwell Air Force Base. The class was for a mix of USAF and contract employees, at the contractor's offices in downtown Montgomery.

Well, sure, let's go to Mongomery!

Is Montgomery a southern city? Yes, definitely, even tragically so in some ways. But at the same time, it's not as southern in some ways as I had anticipated.

My hotel and the course site were on Commerce Street in the old core of the city. Here we're looking south along Commerce Street, from the direction of the riverfront toward the city center.

You can see some of the interesting old architecture in the buildings toward the left in these pictures, especially the nearest building on the corner in the first picture.

Commerce Street, Montgomery, Alabama.
Commerce Street, Montgomery, Alabama.

Here we're moved a little to the south along Commerce. There's a row of old two-story business buildings along the east side of the street.

The tall building at the corner is a hotel, now a Hampton Inn, where I stayed.

Down at the end of the street you can see a traffic circle around a fountain. You can go around that, turning about 45° to the left, and then continue on Dexter Avenue toward the Alabama State Capitol.

I struggle to keep the two words straight. Montgomery is the capital of the state of Alabama, meaning that it contains a capitol building. The capitol building is in the capital city. The unusual word is capitol, the legislative building. All the other words are capital; the governmental city, the decorative top of the column, the goods or money handled by the capitalists, and so on.

I blame my confusion on the Romans and their Capitolium.

OK, out of the dictionary and back onto the street.

Hank Williams and Chloral Hydrate

You pass the Hank Williams Museum just before you get to the hotel. He's one of the prominent local figures.

The Hank Williams museum on Commerce Street, Montgomery, Alabama.

Hank Williams lived to be just 29, dying on New Year's Day of 1953. But in that short time he recorded enough significant songs to be considered one of the most important country music artists of all time. Thirty-five of his singles were placed in Billboard magazine's top ten country and western best sellers, eleven of them making it to #1.

Hank Williams was born in nearby Mount Olive, with the family moving between several towns in southern Alabama following his father's job with the railroad. His parents named him Hiram King Williams, intentionally refering to King Hiram I (reigned 969-936 BC) and King Hiram II (reigned 739-730 BC) of Tyrus, in today's Lebanon. That's way too fancy and ethnic for the country music image, so he informally changed his name to "Hank".

Hiram, er, Hank was born with spinal bifida, and life-long pain led to his consumption of massive amounts of alcohol, morphine, and other painkillers. On the day he had died, he had consumed quite a lot of alcohol and chloral hydrate. He then had a physician inject him with a combination of morphine and vitamin B12. The chemical combination led to a fatal heart attack.

Chloral hydrate, 2,2,2-trichloroethane-1,1-diol, or Cl3C-CH(OH)2, is a sedative. A solution of chloral hydrate in alcohol is a "Mickey Finn" or "knockout drops". It's asking for trouble to slip yourself a Mickey Finn and then immediately follow that with morphine. On a related note, five of his thirty-five top 10 singles were released posthumously.

Williams' style was heavily influenced by what he had learned from Rufus "Tee-Tot" Payne, a blues street performer. Williams sang and played guitar on the sidewalk in front of radio station WSFA in Montgomery starting when he was 14. The station producers put him on the air a few times. Listeners began asking for the "singing kid", and the producers gave him his own 15-minute show twice a week. His weekly salary of $15 was enough to form his own band, the Drifting Cowboys. His career grew from there. The band broke up due to Williams' drinking, and several attempts to form later bands failed for the same reason. But more on that further down the page.


Here's the Hampton Inn exterior. It's at 100 Commerce Street, at its intersection with the major east-west Bibb Street.

This hotel has clearly been here for quite a while. Its location makes good sense, it's just a couple of blocks in from the train station and the riverfront pier.

It's in great shape but some architectural details show that it's not new. The windows in my room were of thick glass with embedded wire mesh. Not for security, as I was on the ninth floor, that's just the way windows were frequently made back in the day.

But meanwhile the room's furnishings were new, including the flat-screen television and the high-speed WiFi throughout the building.

Hampton Inn, 100 Commerce Street, Montgomery, Alabama.
Interior of the Hampton Inn, 100 Commerce Street, Montgomery, Alabama.

The lobby is grand, with a surrounding balcony with wrought iron railings.

The elevators had the old dial indicators to show which floors the cars were on. The dial indicators no longer worked, a ring of light-emitting diodes now indicated the floor. But they had cared enough about the history of the building to leave the dial indicators in place and retrofit them with modern indicators.

What a view! We're looking northwest from the course site in one of the taller buildings in Montgomery. The new convention center and hotels are to our left, and my hotel is in the foreground. The views in this series of pictures shows pretty much the view I had from my hotel room, it was just a little closer to the river and not quite as high.

View to the north from Montgomery, Alabama.
View to the north from Montgomery, Alabama.

We're looking straight north. The large and ornate train station is mostly obscured by one of the new hotels, but we'll see it further down the page.

The Alabama River comes down from the north, makes a major bend here, and continues south to drain into the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile.

Before the Europeans showed up, the Alibamu tribe of Native Americans lived on this side of the river, its left bank. The closely allied Coushatta tribe lived on the opposite bank.

Today's Montgomery is built on the sites of two Alibamu towns, Ikanatchati and Towassa, built on the bluff called Chunnaanaauga Chatty. "Ikanatchati" means "Red Earth", and the natives were right. This is the deep south, with lots of red clay soil and pine forests. The Alibamu and Coushatta people divided their settlements into paired "white" and "red" towns. The "white" towns provided refuges and kept the peace, while the "red" towns" conducted any military campaigns.

Hernando de Soto came through here in 1540, camping for a week in Towassa. The locals were left alone for well over a century, until an expedition from Carolina came down the Alabama River in 1697. The first permanent European settler was the Scottish trader James McQueen, who came here in 1718.

Here we're looking northeast, over the minor league baseball stadium. The Montgomery Biscuits play here, in the Class AA Southern League. They're affiliated with the Tampa Bay Rays.

View to the north from Montgomery, Alabama.
View to the north from Montgomery, Alabama.

It took about another hundred years for European settlement to really start, in the early 1800s. But it really boomed then with the cotton trade. Abraham Mordecai had brought the first cotton gin to Montgomery in 1785. The Creek War ended in 1815 and the Creek tribe was forced to give most of their land to the U.S. government, including most of central and southern Alabama. What didn't remain as pine forest was cleared for farming, mostly of cotton.

Montgomery grew quickly with the cotton trade. It was formally incorporated as a merger of small towns in 1819. It became the county seat in 1822, and in 1846 the state capital was moved from Tuscaloosa to Montgomery.

The city is working to rebuild businesses in the area near the waterfront. One example is the alley and passageway from the Alley Bar to the Dreamland BBQ, near Commerce Street and Tallapoosa Street. It features a number of restaurants and bars.

Area near the hotel in Montgomery, Alabama.
Closed businesses along Commerce Street, Montgomery, Alabama.

Other businesses await renovation and re-opening. This is the corner of Commerce and Bibb.

The downtown area has a lot of buildings from the mid 1800s through the mid 1900s. Many of them are of interesting and sometimes ornate design. A lot of them are unoccupied or nearly so, and need some maintenance, but the place could really look nice with a lot of power washing and painting.

Downtown Montgomery, Alabama.
Downtown Montgomery, Alabama.

Communication History

It seems to me that microwave telecommunication towers are much more a part of the city scenery in the south. I don't know how much of a pattern there really is, but I do notice that.

These are just up from the traffic circle at Commerce Street and Dexter Avenue.

The building on the corner at the left of this picture, the Winter Building, featured in telecommunications history. The Confederate Secretary of War sent the telegram opening military action in the Civil War from this building to the Confederate artillery commander at Sumter, South Carolina.

Microwave towers downtown in Montgomery, Alabama.
Winter Building in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, where the Confederate Secretary of War sent the telegram that started the Civil War.

The Winter Building was built in 1841. On April 11, 1861, Leroy Pope Walker, the Confederate Secretary of War, sent a telegram from the Southern Telegraph Company offices on the second floor to Confederate artillery forces outside Charleston, South Carolina. The telegram authorized Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard to fire on Fort Sumter. This artillery bombardment was the first military action of the Civil War.

If the historical marker accurately documents the fateful telegram, its wording was more flowery than I would have expected.


Downtown Montgomery is almost deserted on Sunday afternoon. We're looking from the fountain at the traffic circle, up Dexter Avenue to the State Capitol building.

In 1886, Mongomery became the city in the Western Hemisphere to convert its entire street railway system to electrical power. The Capital City Street Railway Company had initiated electric trolley service on one mile of the street car line the year before. Charles Van de Poele designed the system and J.A. Gaboury supervised its installation. The electric street car line was known as the Lightning Route and operated until 1936.

I was there the first week of December, those are electrically powered Christmas decorations hanging over the street.

Alabama State Capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama.
Venetian style ironfront Central Bank Building in Montgomery, Alabama.

The Central Bank Building is on the northeast corner of the traffic circle, with its short side facing onto Dexter Avenue.

It was designed by Philadelphia architect Stephen Decatur Button for William Knox in a style emulating the 16th century palaces in Venice. It was the first ironfront building in Alabama.

The Central Bank generously supported the Confederacy. Nice taste in architecture, but poor taste in causes.

The bank was ruined by the end of the Civil War. Other banks occupied the building until it was purchased by the jewelers Klein and son, who occupied it 1923-1983.

It was restored for the Arts Council of Alabama in 1985.

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

The bus stop on that traffic circle next to the Central Bank Building is a famous historic site.

Rosa Parks' bus stop next to the Venetian style ironfront Central Bank Building in Montgomery, Alabama.

Rosa Parks boarded a bus here on December 1, 1955, on her way home from a long day working as a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store.

The system of segregation used on Montgomery buses at the time had white people sit in the front, filling seats toward the back, and black people sit in the back, filling seats toward the front.

When the white and black sections met, the bus was full. If additional black people boarded, they were forced to stand. If additional white people boarded, the people in the furthest forward black row were all forced to get up and stand in order to free a row of seats for the new white people.

Black people were often required to pay at the front, then get off the bus and walk to the back door to re-board. The driver would sometimes drive off before they were able to get back on.

Venetian style ironfront building in Montgomery, Alabama.
Historic marker at Rosa Parks' bus stop in Montgomery, Alabama.

Rosa Parks was on her way home from work on December 1, 1955. She was sitting in the furthest forward black seat, and a white man got on. The bus driver told her and the others in her row to get up and let the white man sit down. She refused, and was arrested. She was fined and required to pay court costs for the case.

Yes, the city not only had laws defining this ridiculous system of segregating seats by race, but they gave arrest powers to their bus drivers.

Behavior like that often makes me think that General Sherman had a good idea, he just didn't carry it out as thoroughly as he might have.

Rosa Parks wasn't the first person take such a stand. Baseball star Jackie Robinson had done something similar when in the Army at Ford Hood, Texas, leading to his court-martial (at which he was acquitted). A 15-year-old girl had been arrested for this very thing in Montgomery earlier in 1955. But it was Rosa Parks that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and in turn to a federal ruling and a U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring the Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregated buses to be unconstitutional.

The boycott was organized by E.D. Nixon, president of the local NAACP chapter, and led by local minister Martin Luther King. The boycott lasted just over a year, from December 1, 1955 to December 20, 1956. It caused a crippling financial deficit for the public transit system in Montgomery, because the black population were the majority of the system's paying customers.

The black community walked most everywhere. Black taxi drivers were willing to give rides for the cost of the bus, until the city officials decreed a new rule fining any taxi driver not charging at least four and a half times that per ride.

Carpools were formed, so the city officials pressured the local insurance companies to refuse to issue insurance for cars used in these carpools.

The membership of the White Citizens' Council swelled, and often resorted to violence. Boycotters were often physically attacked. The White Citizens' Council firebombed four Baptist churches and the houses of Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy, another organizer.

156 protesters were arrested for "hindering" a bus. This group included King. He was ordered to either pay a $500 fine or spend 386 days in jail. He chose jail, which brought more national attention to the protest. He was released after two weeks.

The federal district court ruled on June 4, 1956, that Alabama's racial segregation laws for buses were unconstitutional. The city appealed and kept the segregation in place.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the district court's ruling on November 13, 1956.

Finally, on December 20, 1956, the city had passed a new ordinance saying that people could sit pretty much wherever they wanted on buses regardless of their skin color, and the bus boycott finally ended.

I went walking up Dexter Avenue one evening looking for Martin Luther King's church. I would have about an hour of light every evening if I hurried back to the hotel room and changed clothes as soon as class finished at 4:30 and it was early December.

This is a very pretty church, especially with the setting sun lighting it!

But this was a United Methodist Church, not the one I was looking for.

United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Baptist Church where Martin Luther King preached in Montgomery, Alabama.
Baptist Church where Martin Luther King preached in Montgomery, Alabama.

This is it! This is the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

It's just a couple of blocks down Dexter Avenue from the Alabama State Capitol.

The congregation was organized in 1877 as the Second Colored Baptist Church. The trustees purchased a lot at the southwest corner of Dexter Avenue and what is now Decatur Street for $270 in January 1879.

The church originally met in a small wood-frame building here. The replacement brick building we see today was started in 1883 and was not completed until 1889.

A number of members of the Civil Rights Movement were associated with the church. The most prominent of these was Martin Luther King, who was pastor of the church from 1954 to 1960.

Clueless girl thinks Martin Luther King freed the slaves.

This is important U.S. history. Don't be like this girl.

Continuing up Dexter Avenue for two more blocks, we reach the Alabama State Capitol. That's a Christmas tree temporarily placed near the entrance.

This capitol building was constructed on the foundations of the first one, destroyed by fire, and was completed in 1851.

Neo-Confederate Idiocy

Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama.

One last time:

Montgomery is the state capital, and so it contains the capitol building, which has white columns topped by ornate capitals.

A brass star is inlaid into the marble at the top of the State Capitol steps. It reads:

Placed by Sophie Bibb Chapter, Daughters of the Confederacy, on the spot where Jefferson Davis stood when inaugurated President of the C.S.A., February 18, 1861.
Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama.
Gold star where Jefferson Davis and George Wallace stood to be sworn in at top of steps at Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy is an organization that has tried with some success to influence the selection of textbooks and teaching of revisionist history in the south. According to the U.D.C., all the slaves were loyal and willingly contributed to the Southern Cause. The U.D.C. tried through the 1920s and 1930s to organize the construction on the National Mall in Washington, DC, of a monument to these mythical "faithful slaves".

They were also big supporters of segregation, and have worked to rename public high schools after Ku Klux Klan leaders. For example, Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville, Florida, and the Forrest School in Chapel Hill, Tennessee.

They fought against Brown vs Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision ending public school segregation.

These "Southern Heritage" groups have changed their public messages in the past decades. They have quit claiming in public that slavery was a good thing and that the slaves benefitted from being bought and sold as property.

Now the code word is "States' Rights", as in their claims that "The Civil War wasn't about Slavery, it was about States' Rights."

The states' rights for what, exactly? Well, the states' right to legalize slavery and practice segregation. And the states' right to make it illegal to criticize slavery or segregation.

They also claim that their goal is to commemorate the "honor and chivalry" of the South. They want us to think that there was something honorable or chivalrous about slavery and bigotry.

In 2010, the Virginia Board of Education was caught introducing grade-school "history" textbooks claiming that thousands of blacks fought on the side of the Confederacy and thereby to preserve slavery.

The Encyclopedia Virginia article on the United Daughters of the Confederacy says: "The context of these efforts was the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War, which emphasized states' rights and secession over slavery as causes of the war and was often used to further the goals of white supremacists in the twentieth century."

Speaking of white supremacists, after his long political career dedicated largely to maintaining segregation and opposing civil rights, the world learned that Strom Thurmond had secretly fathered a child by his family's black maid. His daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, has applied for membership in the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Thurmond had filed the genealogical paperwork showing that he was eligible for membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and so she has the required descent from members of the Confederate military.

I hope that the U.D.C. and similar slavery apologists find this excrutiatingly uncomfortable.

The north side of the Capitol grounds has a monument to Confederate veterans inscribed "Dedicated to the knightliest of the knightly race." This pretty obviously promotes white supremacy, but its critics have had no success getting rid of it because its cornerstone was laid by Jefferson Davis, the only President of the Confederate States of America.

So, as an alternative, let's look at a statue of James Marion Sims standing in front of the State Capitol. From the historic marker:

James Marion Sims, 1813-1888

Father of Modern Gynecology

Montgomery 1848-1849, operations he devised cured a then considered hopeless malady, gaining him fame as a benefactor of women.

Founded Women's Hospital, city of New York in 1855. Decorated by Emperor of France, Kings of Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Italy.

Erected by the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, 1939.

Curiousity about the hopeless yet nameless malady led me to Wikipedia, where I learned it was a vesicovaginal fistula, "an abnormal fistulous tract extending between the bladder and the vagina." The article also included the unpleasant detail that he developed his procedure through experimentally operating on slave women without anesthesia. He operated on one of them 30 times, although "it remains unclear if this was necessary due to stitching failure, or if Sims did it deliberately."

Once he thought he had perfected his surgical technique on the first three slave women, he then successfully repaired fistulae on several other slave women.

Only then did he move on to attempting the procedure on white women, and only then did he bother to use anesthesia.

Status of James Marion Sims at Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama.
'Confederate White House' in Montgomery, Alabama.

This large white house was built by William Sayre in 1832-35. It was designated the Executive Residence of the Confederacy by the Provisional Confederate Congress on February 21, 1861.

In simpler terms, the White House of the Confederacy.

Or, as Strom Thurmond, Trent Lott, and others might further specify, the Exclusively White House.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his family lived in this house for a few months, until the Confederate capital moved to Richmond, Viginia in the summer of that year.

'Confederate White House' in Montgomery, Alabama.
'Confederate White House' in Montgomery, Alabama.

The house was built several blocks away, on the opposite side of today's state capital building, at the intersection of Bibb and Lee Streets. It was moved to its present location in June, 1921.

Union Station

Train station in Montgomery, Alabama.

This is the enormous and ornate Union Station. It opened in 1898, serving passenger trains of several railroads. It had six tracks under a 600-foot-long shed.

Passenger service declined during the 1950s and 1960s. Amtrak came into existence in 1971, and continued service through Montgomery with the South Wind train operating between Chicago and Miami.

The South Wind ceased operation in 1979, and Union Station was closed. The station sat empty for several years, and then was renovated for commercial tenants. The tracks under the large shed were replaced by an asphalt parking area.

Amtrak returned rail service to Montgomery in 1989 through 1995, with an extension of the Washington D.C. to New Orleans Crescent, but there has been no passenger rail service since then.

Union Station now contains the Montgomery Area Visitor Center and a few businesses, including a nice Thai restaurant (they actually named it "Railroad Thai", get it?) and a Wells Fargo bank branch.

Train station in Montgomery, Alabama.
Municipal Auditorium in Montgomery, Alabama, site of Hank Williams' funeral.

Hank Williams, Again

The Municipal Auditorium was the site of Hank Williams' funeral in 1953. The nearby historical marker explains that family members first viewed the body at his mother's boarding house at 217 McDonough Street. The casket was then brought four blocks to the Municipal Auditorium.

Some 2,750 mourners crowded inside for the service while another 20,000 maintained a vigil outside in the cold weather. Many of country music's headliners, including the reunited Drifting Cowboys, sang at the funeral.

In 1991, Hank Williams, Jr., commissioned Texas sculptors Doug and Sandra McDonald to create a life-sized statue of his father in the park facing the auditorium.

Statue of Hank Williams in Montgomery, Alabama.

This building on the corner is the Montgomery Theatre. Two historical markers explain that it opened in 1860, just before the start of the Civil War, and it was significant in the social, cultural, and political life of the city. Presidential assassin and actor John Wilkes Booth performed here.

But the thing that makes this a shrine for the pro-Confederacy crowd is its connection to the song Dixie. The theatre closed in 1907, but it's still a sacred shrine to them. One of the two historical markers says:

On a wall in this building, "The Montgomery Theater", Dan Emmett first inscribed the score of "Dixie" for his minstrel orchestra.

H.F. Arnold arranged it for band music and used it at the inauguration of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, February 18, 1861.

Placed by Sophie Bib Chapter, United Daughters of the Confederacy, 1928.

Montgomery Theatre in Montgomery, Alabama, where the song 'Dixie' was first performed.

Old Alabama Town

Old Alabama Town is a residential section of Montgomery filled with restored structures from the 1800s and 1900s.

Some are residences today, others house organizations and small businesses.

Old Alabama Town in Montgomery, Alabama.
Lucas Tavern in Old Alabama Town in Montgomery, Alabama, where the Marquis de Lafayette and his entourage spent the night in 1825.

This is the Lucas Tavern. It was originally located about 400 yards away. It was built before 1818 and owned by at least two other families before it was purchased around January 1821 by Walter and Eliza Lucas.

It was originally a two-room "dogtrot" structure, and the Lucases converted it to a roadside inn during the early 1820s.

On April 2, 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette and his entourage stayed at this tavern during their trip through Alabama.

The Lucas family left in 1842 for new business ventures in Mississippi, and the tavern became a residence and then a storage building.

It was moved here and restored in 1980.

Old Alabama Town in Montgomery, Alabama.
Old Alabama Town in Montgomery, Alabama.

The South Has Largely Moved On

What about my opening comment that Montgomery was, in some ways, less Southern than I expected?

Sure, there was plenty of dreadful history: Slavery itself. Segregation through over half of the 20th century. The governors flew the Confederate flag over the State Capitol from 1961 through 1993 as a symbol of defiance against the federal desegregation laws.

And some things remain: the U.D.C. keeps agitating for children to be taught a fantasy "history", and the memorial to "the knightliest of the knightly race" still stands on the Capitol grounds because of its connection to Jefferson Davis.

But.... In some ways, Montgomery struck me as less Southern than the part of southern Indiana where I grew up.

I didn't see one Confederate flag on a license plate, bumper sticker, or T-shirt during the week I spent in Montgomery. I can't imagine a few days in southern Indiana without seeing several.

Old Alabama Town in Montgomery, Alabama.
Old Alabama Town in Montgomery, Alabama.

One evening during the week and then again on Saturday morning before leaving, I scanned across the FM broadcast band using the clock radio in the hotel room. There were three stations playing jazz, two NPR stations, and three stations playing some classic rock format. Plus just two country music stations and one with a hollering preacher. An FM bandscan in southern Indiana can be mostly country music and hollering preachers, where I once heard someone describe the major radio broadcast genres as "Twang, Twang, Twang and God, God, God."

Montgomery's FM broadcast band also seems less hillbilly than that of Indianapolis, a major city located in central Indiana.

I also noticed that Montgomery's car salesmen, some of whom feature in their own television and radio advertising, seem no more southern than those from Indiana. In fact, some of the Indianapolis car dealers seem to be in a competition for the title of Most Ignorant Hillbilly.

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