Civil Rights Memorial In Montgomery
A New Awakening of Conscience?
By Keith Weldon Medley
Cowardice asks, ‘is a position safe?”
Expediency asks, ‘is a position politic?”
Vanity asks, “Is a position popular?”
But Conscience asks, ‘Is a position
—Martin Luther King III - quoting from one of his father’s speeches at Civil Rights Memorial Dedication,
PEOPLE from across the country gathered in Montgomery, Alabama, November 5, 1989, to dedicate a memorial to 40 men, women and children of all colors and creeds who died because of racial violence from 1954 through 1968.Sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the granite structure was designed by Maya Lin, the creator of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The event drew over 600 family members of the slain persons honored on the monument, scores of civil rights leaders, and thousands of Montgomery residents.Many participants issued calls for a return to the moral courage that marked the civil rights movement to confront many of the problems facing sufferers in today’s post-Reagan America.
As the first capital of the Confederacy and the birthplace of the modern civil rights movement, Montgomery is a city of contrasts.At the top of the hill on Dexter Avenue stands the Alabama Capitol where Jefferson Davis in 1861 held his first inaugural parade and assumed the mantle of president of the Confederate States of America.
A mere block away is the unassuming 100-year-old Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where the people of Montgomery organized a boycott of segregated buses in 1955—the action which elevated Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence and ignited the modem civil rights movement.
Dr. King’s former church is so close to the state capitol building that the Confederate flag atop the capitol’s dome is reflected in the church's stained glass windows.
In contrast, a mural in the church’s basement traces Black Montgomery’s historic struggles against segregation including Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in 1955, the car pool stations established to provide rides for the 40,000 observing the bus boycott, and the 1956 bombing of the Dexter Avenue church.It also has scenes depicting the 1961 beating of freedom riders here, the legislative victories of the 1960s, and the many milestones and figures of the civil rights movement.
One block from the church, on Washington Street, is the Southern Poverty Law Center, the site of the monument.
Founded in 1971, the Law Center is a private non-profit organiiation dedicated to expanding and protecting the rights of minorities and poor people.One of its most dramatic victories came in the eighties when the Center litigated a seven million dollar jury award against the Ku Klux Klan for lynching a Black man in Mobile, Alabama.
The Law Center is currently representing a group of women who underwent forced sterilization, according to Pat Clark, director of Klanwatch, the center’s program which monitors Klan activity.
Clark said the memorial is the brainchild of Morris Dees, the center’s executive director, who wanted to make sure that the sacrifices made during the turbulent times of the civil rights movement were remembered and that others would be inspired by its many examples of personal courage and commitment.
“So many of the racially, religious and ethnically motivated incidents that are occurring right now are being perpetrated by young people,” says Clark.“Obviously, somewhere along the line there’s been a loss of sensitivity, or no sensitivity to cultural diversity, so Morris Dees wanted to do something that would elevate the issue and profile individuals who sacrificed their lives; to inspire people to stay focused on the need for civil rights. It’s also an attempt to use history to rekindle sensitivity.”
The Law Center parlayed a land deal into $700,000 dollars to finance construction of the monument, identified the center’s office building as the site, and chose Maya Lin as designer in July 1988.In addition to the memorial, the Center published a book called Free At Last which recounts the lives and deaths of those on the memorial and key dates in civil rights history.
Clark says that 55,000 copies were mailed to secondary schools and colleges across the country as part of the Center’s Civil Rights Education Project. There are also plans for a civil rights museum and a documentary film to accompany the publication.
“The Montgomery community has responded incredibly well” to the Center’s efforts to host a banquet and dedication ceremony, Pat Clark continued.“We have gotten a lot of participation from local people acting as guides and
serving at the banquet. It is reinvigorating people at a time when people need to be invigorated. Some of the local Black leaders here have said this effort, in many respects, symbolized a rebirth of focus on the civil rights movement that’s very much needed.”
The monument’s creator, Maya Lin was only 21 years old when she designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., amid criticism from many who thought her design did not sufficiently glorify the Vietnam War, and undercurrents of resentment that a woman of Asian descent was its creator.
Despite strong opposition, Lin doggedly stuck by her design. Today the Vietnam Memorial is acclaimed as the most moving memorial in the city of monuments. Now 30, Lin was only nine when King was assassinated. She spent three months researching the civil rights period. She sees a number of threads linking her current effort with the Vietnam Memorial:
“They’re very similar and I don’t mean in form and materials, but rather in the mood, chronological timeline, acceptance of truth, and they both give you the ability to read and decipher history and come away with your own conclusion.”
“The idea came to me very quickly?’ she continued. “I needed to reach out and present information that people could absorb within a short time, something that would symbolically describe a character, a feeling, and convey the sense of sacrifice of these individuals which signifies the sacrifice of everyone in the struggle the country went through.”
Set in a plaza outside the Center’s office, the memorial’s centerpiece is an inverted cone-shaped granite table. Water emerges from the center of the table flowing evenly across the top which is engraved with names of civil rights martyrs. Surface tension keeps most of the water clinging to the cone’s underside before draining. Some drops patter to the stone plaza below creating a placid, contemplative sound.
A granite wall overlooking the table is likewise shrouded in a steady stream of water. The wall is engraved with a now famous King quote taken from the Book of Amos, “Until justice rolls’down like waters and righteousness like a mighty Stream?’
“It’s that quote that started it,” affirms Lin while pointing to the inscription on the granite wall. “I read that quote and I knew immediately that the piece would deal with water. On the tactile level, the calm effect of the water kind of quiets things down and sets a mood. In a way, poetically I think, it’s like the tears we’ve shed will protect these names forever.”
Engraved in the circular table are inscriptions which chronicle the high points of the civil rights struggles:
l7-May-1954---- Supreme Court Outlaws School Segregation In Brown vs. Board of Education...
l3-November-1956—Supreme Court Bans Segregated Seating on Montgomery Buses...
28-August-1963—250,000 Americans March on Washington For Civil Rights...
Interspered in these victories are the painful moments of family sacrifice, when hatred spawned by segregationist empires in the South showed little regard for age, race, religion, level of activism or guilt.
28-August-1955 Emmett Louis Till— Youth Murdered for Speaking to White Woman-Money, MS...
25-September-1961 Herbert Lee—Voter Registration Worker Killed by White Legislator-Liberty, MS...
l2-June-t963 Medgar Evers—Civil Rights Leader Assassinated-Jackson, MS...
l5-September-1963 Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cyn¬thia Wesley—Schoolgirls killed in Bombing of 16th St. Baptist Church-Birmingham, AL...
The memorial lists names from all walks of life: farmers, businessmen, preachers, soldiers and students. Many of the names are of children whose killings tested the resolve of civil rights participants more than any other of the many acts of violence.
Who could forget the anguish of Emmett Till’s mother when her 14-year-old son’s body arrived in Chicago from Money, Mississippi after he was beaten, shot in the head, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River with a 75-pound cotton gin t~n tied around his neck.
‘‘Have you ever sent a loved son on vaca¬tion?’ she asked reporters at the train station when her son’s body arrived in 1955, “and had him returned to yuu in a pine box, so horribly battered and water-logged that someone needs to tell you that this sickening sight is your son—lynched?”
Activists who spoke out against segregation were frequent targets. Herbert Lee was shot by a Mississippi legislator in Amite County for encouraging people to vote in 1961. Three years later, Louis Allen, a witness who came forward to testify about the Lee murder, was killed with two loads of buckshot in the face and discovered by his son in the driveway of their home.
In addition to the Blacks who were killed are the names of many whites who paid the ultimate price. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwemer, two Jewish CORE members from New York, were killed with Black activist James Chancy during the “freedom” summer of 1964.In 1965, Viola Gregg Liur.za, a housewife from Detroit, was gunned down with two 38-caliber bullets during a 100 miles-per-hour car chase after she ferried people to Selma, Alabama, for the Selma to Mont¬gomery March.
To many across America, the killings were outrages. Their brutality spurred a series of civil rights laws that benefited millions. But for the families who began arriving in Montgomery on Friday, November 3,1989, the killings began a long personal strugglias they grappled with the death of their loved ones under such incomprehensibly violent circumstances.
Dennis Dahrner was only 12 years old when his father Vernon Dahmer died from burns received when the Klan firebombed his home in l966. During the assault, his father stood in the doorway firing shots to buy time for his family to escape.As a Hattiesburg, Mississippi community leader, businessman, father of eight and leader of the NAACP who often housed voter registration workers, Wrnon Dahmer often told people?’ If you don’t vote, you don’t count.”
Dennis, who now resides in Baton Rouge, recalled those days: “For the next 10 years, I was a confused individual. I was mad at all the different groups, mad at whites for doing it and mad at Blacks for not speaking out. But as I got older, I saw not only the physical but economic intimidation that was brought to bear, so I began to appreciate why people were afraid.”
Dahmer also found healing in the many people who told him how his father’s devotion to justice had helped and inspired them. And he is reassured by the monument’s construction:
“I always knew that the sacrifice my father made was not in vain. We now have a permanent reminder of that, but his name lives on in the activities of his friends and others. It was a shock to find out how many people whose lives he affected life was just Daddy to me, but to see the strong impact he had on others was shocking.”
Kathryn Takara’s first cousin Samuel Younge Jr. was killed for attempting to use a “Whites only” restroom at a gas station in Tuskegee Alabama. Younge was an activist in Tuskegee, Alabama and organized voters in Lowndes County.
“He was like a brother to me,” stated Takara who currently teaches Afro-American studies at the University of Hawaii. She learned of his death while on a Fulbright scholarship in France. “We had that closeness because I didn’t have any brothers or sisters. We took vacations together. It would sometimes startle me because he was so outspoken. When he died, I got a telegram saying Sammie paid the ultimate price in the name of freedom. I stayed in France with my pain and grief and rage, and I didn’t come back for seven years because I was so enraged.”
At a banquet for the 600 family members at the Montgomery Civic Center, Reverend Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference called upon the living to honor the slain martyrs as a cloud of witnesses and to threw off the weights of racism, materialism and militarism that hamper the country. He also called upon those in the “community of conscience” to clear their slates in preparation for the struggles ahead:
“If we are to honor our cloud of witnesses, we must challenge our nation to lay aside its insensitivity; its commitment to foolish racism and militarism that fails to honor this cloud of witnesses.
“But as we challenge our nation, there is the other side. Those of us who are members of the community of conscience must lay aside the weights that beset us. Blacks and whites how to work together to end racism, because we are inextricably bound together and neither of us are going anywhere. So let’s put it on the table and deal with it.
“We must lay aside the weight of our retreat from activism. We have grown movement lazy. We have to be activists again.
“We must lay aside the weight of in¬dividualism that has crept into the body politic. We have become so individualistic we have lost our sense of each otherness. We’ve lost our creative social interdependence. We’ve lost our brotherhood and sisterhood. We must recapture the sense of each-otherism.
“We must throw aside the weight of political immaturity that leads us to be emotionally high over some elections and visibly, criminally and immorally low in our participation in other elections.
“We must be mature enough to get just as excited about someone running for the board of education in our local community as someone running for president. We must be excited and enthusiastic about average elections,
“I think most of us ought to have no permanent political party, just permanent political principles and judge candidates by how they relate to those principles, rather than what party they belong to.”
Lowery also spoke about the social problems that grip many in the inner cities; the despair that shows in teen-age preg¬nancy; the drug crisis.
“Don’t let the assault from without make us fall victim to the faults from within. We’ve always been a people of hope.”
After the banquet, many attended a reception at the downtown Capitol Club hosted by Marlin Luther King III. Others gathered at jazz pianist Henry Pugh’s Sous la Terre, an underground jazz club, in appreciative reminiscing and toasting of former relatives and friends.
Sunday morning was cloudless. The workmen had completed the final touches on the structure and the surrounding fences were removed.At 8 a.m. the scene was quiet in front of the plaza, save the trickling of water and the plaintive words and melody of Peace itt my Heart from the songstresses practicing for the dedication ceremonies. Soon thereafter, Montgomery school children, volunteers and family members arrived.
As witnesses to the monument’s first public showing, many in the families wept as they traced the engraved names of their loved ones through the cool water which rolled across their fingertips. Bouquets of fresh flowers were placed underneath the table.
“I’ve seen people bring flowers and leave them,” said Morris Dees. “I’ve seen people shed tears, I’ve seen people bring their grandchildren up there and say, See your daddy didn’t die for nothing:
“This is not a tombstone with a bunch of names on it like most monuments,’ Dees continued. “This is a living memorial. Instead of an eternal flame, it has an eternal pool of water and that water is like tears that have welled up and people shed over the years.”
“I’m glad that it’s been done, Kathryn Takara says referring to the memorial, “not only for our children but for all the children to come.”
Ollie Gordon, a cousin who lived with Emmett Till for seven years, was visibly moved by the impact of the monument.
“He was like my guardian angel?’ she fondly remembers. “lt’s soothing to see the name engraved. But to touch it brings a feeling that’s very emotional, like a surge through your body. Just the fact that somebody had enough respect for them to show this gratitude, with something that will be passed on from generation to generation, is absolutely beautifuL”
An obviously pleased Maya Lin adds, “This is their time” as she shooed reporters away to pose for pictures with the family and sign polaroid shots.
As the day went on, approximately 7500 people trudged up Washington Street toward the memorial. Volunteers from the Center ferried the elderly and inftrmed in gold carts. Approximately 5000 copies of the Free At Last book were sold, and many family members used it for autographs from new found friends and old acquaintances.Julian Bond emceed the dedication ceremonies:
“We gather today in the cradle of the Confederacy to dedicate a monument to those who died so all might be free.
As we do so, let us rededicate ourselves to freedom’s fight. Let us gather not in recrimination but in reconciliation, remem¬brance, and renewed resolve."
“Once this cradle rocked with the violence of our opponents. Today it is soothed by the waters of this monument — a monument which, like the movement it honors, is majestic in its simplicity and overwhelming in its power."
Mamie Till Mobley recounted her darkest days:
“We are men and women of sorrows and we are acquainted with grief. But we sorrow not as those who have no hope. We know that we were chosen to be burden bearers. Being chosen, we were given that God-given strength to bear these burdens."
“For when it seemed that nothing else would help, when the blackness of a 100 midnights surrounded my days, and when my eyes were a fountain of tears, the realization came that Emmett's death was not a personal experience for me to hug to myself and weep, but it was a worldwide awakening that would change the course of history.”
At the end, the roll call of martyrs was read. And then, We Shall Overcome was sung. “Deep In My Heart?’ the crowd sang in unison, “I do believe, we shall overcome some day.”
Keith Weldon Medley
Montgomery - 1989