The Word Is ‘Slaves’: A Trip Into Black History


Four months later, on Sunday, September 15, a bomb exploded at Sixteenth Street Baptist, killing four young black girls. A stained-glass window depicting a black Christ was new to me. It was a gift from the people of Wales to replace a window lost in the bomb blast. When I told my guide that I had been there, her polite smile told me that I was not the first person to pass through with such memories.

Since the early 1960s Kelly-Ingram Park and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church have become historic landmarks, as much a part of Birmingham’s heritage as the restored steel mill on the outskirts of town. Soon construction will start on a building on the northwest corner of the park, a museum and research facility to be called the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Odessa Woolfolk, chairman of the institute’s task force, told me that the debate over the institute had been oddly “anatomical” in its imagery, those for it citing “a healing process,” those opposed arguing that it will “open old wounds.”


I had heard the arguments before—old wounds versus healing—in the debate over other black historic sites. In her office in Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, Lisa Walsh Shivers, director of the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel, was matter-of-fact. “It’s what happened here,” she said. “You can’t shove it under the rug.” Moreover, a rich black heritage gives Alabama a competitive edge in attracting travelers, black or white, to the state. “It’s a truth of the travel business,” she explained, “that you don’t have to be better; you just have to be different.”

Montgomery, a pleasant, slow-moving Southern city, is known as both the cradle of the Confederacy and the birth-place of the civil rights movement. Here, in 1861, the Confederate States of America was formed and Jefferson Davis sworn in as president. Almost a century later, in 1955, a black seamstress named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man, and in protest the civil rights movement essentially began.

Historic sites from the two eras are found side by side in Montgomery. The Confederate White House, where Davis lived until the capital was moved to Richmond; the Civil Rights Memorial (and the headquarters of its sponsor, the crusading Southern Poverty Law Center); and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the scene of so much civil rights history, are within a few blocks of one another. Looming over all, at the head of Dexter Avenue, is the magnificent 1851 State Capitol with the Confederate Stars and Bars still flying above it and a bronze star marking the approximate spot where Davis took the Confederate oath of office.

The rich stretch of farmland known as the Mississippi Delta attracts visitors to sites associated with legendary figures of the blues.

Six blocks west of the Capitol—just at the point where Dexter Avenue turns into Commerce—a marker in front of the 1841 Winter Building tells me that on April 11, 1861, “Confederate Secretary of War Leroy Pope Walker sent a telegram to Charleston authorizing the Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard to fire on Ft. Sumter.” Thus began the War Between the States, as it is called in Alabama.


The block has more recent historic associations, not as yet distinguished by any plaque or maker. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks left work at a downtown department store, one door away from the Winter Building, crossed the street, and, in front of No. 1 Dexter Avenue, boarded a city bus.

Upon her arrest the black leadership of the city gathered in the basement of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to organize a boycott of the city’s buses. Two days later Martin Luther King, Jr., was elected president of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association, an organization that would oversee the boycott until the buses were desegregated a year later.

From that point on the church was the scene of constant civil rights activity. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his first sermon there as resident pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist on September 5, 1954. During his six years in the pulpit, he grew into a national civil rights leader, and the Montgomery Improvement Association evolved into the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The triumphs of King’s Montgomery years were tempered by bombings and threats on his life. At a low moment King cried from the pulpit: “Lord, I hope that nobody has to die as a result of our struggle for freedom in Montgomery. But if anyone has to die, let it be me.”

After he was assassinated, the church was renamed the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. On June 3, 1974, the National Park Service designated it a national historic landmark.

I had visited the major black-heritage sites of Alabama: Tuskegee Institute and Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma. Now I was scheduled to drive straight across Mississippi—from Meridian to Jackson—but at the last moment I decided to swing north to the small farming town of Philadelphia, a town that, despite its own best efforts to forget, is still haunted by its past.