Birthplace of US civil rights simmers with a residue of racism

Wed, Apr 4, 2012, 01:00

ALABAMA LETTER: Over half a century on, a black woman’s brave act of defiance against the segregated social mores of her day still echoes as social catalyst

MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA, in the heart of America’s Deep South is known as the birthplace of the US civil rights movement.

In December 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white male passenger on a segregated public bus. Her subsequent arrest led to a series of protests and court challenges to racial segregation throughout the southern states.

In May 1961 a busload of 21 white and African-American college students – known as the Freedom Riders – arrived from Nashville at Montgomery’s Greyhound bus station.

There they were met with mob violence from an angry white crowd infiltrated by the Ku Klux Klan.

Fifty-one years later, I stand outside the station on South Court Street. The restored building now houses an award-winning museum which commemorates the bravery and enduring legacy of the Freedom Riders.

I am here in Montgomery as part of a Boston College and US state department exchange programme dealing with “Alternatives to Political Violence”. The group is made up of a dozen men and women from the Republic and Northern Ireland.

As we follow the Alabama civil rights trail, the differences between us – politicians, community workers, policemen and women, judges, journalists, northerners and southerners – begin to evaporate.

Flying south to Montgomery, I was wedged into a window seat next to two large southern gentlemen.

As we passed over the Mason-Dixon line, they high-fived each other and welcomed me to the south. Or as they put it “Y’all welcome to the south.”

In that same sing-song drawl, we were warmly welcomed into the offices, workplaces and classrooms of the department of homeland security, the Montgomery police department, the public school system and the campaigning Southern Poverty Law Centre.

In the evenings, we attended a number of uniquely American cultural events. We watched the local Montgomery Biscuits take on Auburn University.

Cops, cheerleaders, players and large family groups – black and white – mingled easily around hot dog stands and stalls selling ice-cold beer. Norman Rockwell might have painted the scene.

Next to the stadium, on the banks of the Alabama river, a Bay Line train – pulled by five massive diesel locomotives – thrummed through the Wells Fargo station.

As the crowd poured out, the train’s mournful klaxon echoed over the river and into the dense cottonwood and sagebrush beyond.

Two nights later, we attended a Freedom march commemoration in St Jude’s Educational Institute.

In the school hall, in the heat of the night, gospel singers, evangelical preachers, Catholic priests and community leaders linked arms and sang from the stage.

The songs were about freedom and deliverance. A longing for reconciliation, mutual respect and acceptance.

As we moved up the hall, we met the Rev Jesse Jackson. He embraced his “friends from Ireland” and thanked us for making the “pilgrimage”.

Beneath the veneer of southern hospitality in Montgomery and despite the commemorative nature of the civil rights events we attended, there are still simmering racial tensions in Alabama.

The state has a population similar to that of Ireland at about 4.5 million, yet it has a prison population of almost 35,000 – nearly 10 times that of Ireland. Most of the inmates are African Americans.

Shockingly, the police have a growing presence in Montgomery’s public school system. Black children have been maced in school for using swear words and engaging in “threatening” behaviour – for many, normal childhood rites of passage.

As a consequence, hundreds of African-American boys have been criminalised and incarcerated during their formative school years.

Under Alabama’s laws, some even face the death penalty for crimes committed in childhood.

Yet there is progress. At the Martin Luther King Memorial Baptist Church, the elderly African-American lady who acts as custodian and tour guide informs me that there are good people from all over Alabama who are committed to ending racial division.

“Just last week” she tells me, “one of the police officers who arrested Rosa Parks, reached out and made contact with us here. I’m now Facebook friends with his daughter.

“That’s what the Rev King made possible.”

My abiding impression of Alabama is of a United States trying to come to terms with its own unique democratic structures.

America constantly renegotiates constitutional, federal and state rights and responsibilities around individual liberty and equality.

Particularly problematic – with the dramatic rise in hate speech and hate networks since President Barack Obama’s election – are the first and second amendments to the US constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech, including hate speech and the right to bear arms.

In the US of 2012, federal agencies fear gang violence and home-grown Oklahoma-style terror attacks far more than an attack from Islamist extremists.