American Apartheid on Dexter Avenue
Journey to Montgomery (Part 3 of a Series)
“Ran away, a negro girl called Mary. Has a small scar over her eye, a good many teeth missing, the letter A is branded to her cheek and forehead.”
“Ran away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron on the left side of her face. I tried to make the letter M.”
“Ran away, a negro named Arthur. Has a considerable scar across his breast and each arm, made by a knife; loves to talk much of the goodness of God.”
Not every resident of Montgomery was thrilled about last week’s opening of the lynching memorial and Legacy Museum. “It’s going to cause an uproar and open old wounds,” one told The Guardian. “It keeps putting the emphasis on discrimination and cruelty,” said another.
For a Yankee who grew up equating segregation with the physical separation of blacks and whites, it’s amazing how close together the two separate worlds have always been in Montgomery. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, for example, is just a block from Alabama’s State Capitol. In the former, a young pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr., a seamstress named Rosa Parks, and others organized the Montgomery bus boycott in December 1955, which paralyzed the city’s bus system until the Supreme Court declared segregated public transportation unconstitutional. Barely seven years later, newly elected Governor George Corley Wallace, Jr., stood on the state house steps looking across to the church and vowed: “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
A few months later, in the nation’s capital, King responded: “I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists . . . one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
In his inaugural Wallace proudly noted that he stood on the spot where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America in 1861. In fact, Davis’ statue stands near that spot today, and the Confederacy’s first white house is just across the street. A few blocks away, toward the Alabama River, is the old site of the city’s slave markets, where men, women, and children were brought by boat or on the railroad, itself built by slave labor, and auctioned to the highest bidder. At the beginning of the Civil War, Alabama had 435,080 slaves. They made up 45% of the state’s total population and 100% of its black population – because 27 years earlier Alabama had forbidden free black people to live within its borders.
It’s a story we have long buried beneath the legacy of the Lost Cause, in which an idyllic, pastoral South fought nobly against an aggressive, industrial North to preserve a society, now Gone With the Wind, in which the plantation was not an economic system but an agrarian paradise, where chattel slaves, under the care of benevolent owners, lived happier lives than the wretched wage slaves in Yankee factories.
While many white Americans accepted that story, foreign visitors saw right through it. The quotes at the top of this post did not come from the walls of the Legacy Museum. They are taken from actual advertisements that Charles Dickens listed in American Notes for General Circulation, an account of his visit here in 1842. Dickens – who knew firsthand the appalling conditions of England’s urban poor – simply could not fathom the depravity of American slavery.
And 121 years later my friend David Yeats-Thomas, a white South African who had grown up in the midst of apartheid, received a fellowship to Mississippi State University. He was on campus the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and he remembers the rebel whoops of joy and the flaming cross. He transferred after his first year because he had not seen, even in his own country, such racism as he encountered in Starkville, Mississippi.