When I told my friends that I was taking a long weekend vacation in Montgomery, Alabama, some of them asked me why, and a few flat out told me to be careful. I’m a gay Asian man living in the U.S. A long time ago in Sacramento, as I was walking down a street at night with my friend Mauro, a car of men flew by us and yelled faggots and threw a soda can at us. I wasn’t too traumatized, but I’m always alert in a new city. I didn’t know anything about Montgomery, Alabama. But I had done some research. The city was 60% Black and even more Democratic: a blue dot in a sea of red. I wasn’t too worried. When I said that and they nodded, I understood the threat we hadn’t spoken out loud about came from Southern whites. I knew it was unfair. But when one friend, a gay white man who grew up in the South, told me, “We didn’t go to Alabama, and I was from Ketucky”, or another, a woman of color, said her feelings about the South were so mixed and she wouldn’t voluntarily visit that part of the country, I also understood that this trip was not about disproving that stereotype.
To be honest, Montgomery wasn’t my first choice of a vacation spot. I am curious about the South. Besides an overnight work trip in Atlanta and a couple of times in New Orleans (which is really its own breed of a city), I had not really experienced the deep South. I had been debating a few places to visit. At the top of the list was actually Nashville, Tennessee. I had wanted to visit that city for years that I knew my interest in it would not wane anytime soon. So I picked Montgomery while I was still showing some curiosity about it. Better do it now or I might never. So second choice it is!
My mind works in strange ways that make its own sense.
As someone who’s making a living by working with organizations and leaders committed to a racial equity that is explicitly pro-Black, Montgomery feels like a necessary pilgrimage, like paying dues to a history that’s guided a lot of my work but I have no direct experience of. The city is riddled with contradictions. A center of domestic slave trafficking after the Atlantic slave trade was made illegal, Montgomery was the seat of the Confederacy during the Civil War; a statue of Jefferson Davis still stood in front of the Capitol. It was also a significant part of the origins story of Civil Rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. had just moved to the city when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, and he quickly ascended to be the spokesperson of that movement in the following year, making him a national figure. Later, Montgomery was also the destination of the march King and others led from Selma. The Freedom Riders were greeted by a mob of white supremacists when they arrived at the Greyhound station in Montgomery (which is now a museum commemorating that perilous journey).
My brother had come down on my second day to spend the weekend there with me. He noticed that the city’s “great seal” proclaims itself as both “the Cradle of Confederacy” (inside a six-point star) and “the Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Really, pick a lane!
The city reminds you of this conflicted history in almost every other block. I had been to Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia and a few plantations in Louisiana, but those are destinations tourists seek out. In downtown Montgomery, I strolled on sidewalks where slave auctions were once held or passed by a statue of Rosa Parks where she was arrested for not giving up her seat on a bus to a white man. My hotel displays some remnants of the building’s past life: old metal tools, ropes and a raised wooden stand that I had feared was where enslaved Black people once stood to be appraised. If that was the case, I was both impressed that the management was honest about it and shuddered at the thought that they didn’t think it would offend their guests. On the second day, with my brother, I finally gathered enough courage to read the sign that explains the lineage of the building - a former furniture warehouse, nothing to do with slavery. Phew.
No ghost haunting the hotel, but the whole episode illustrates for me there is no way to escape this history in Montgomery. It’s not just in my head. It’s in my body. It’s what I had come for. I’d asked for discomfort.
The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, from the Equal Justice Institute, did their best to make sure that history was alive throughout the city. My brother and I spent more than three hours at the Museum. It was part art museum and part archives. I was barely past the first room when I felt the millions of souls buried in the Atlantic during the Middle Passage as much as I had the ghosts in the streets of Montgomery. (Our tour confirmed that our hotel was not one of the many sites in the city where newly arrived enslaved people were caged.) At the Memorial, I remarked to my brother that the descending spiral of the layout effectively made it feel like the metal blocks that stood in for lynching victims were being progressively hoisted above us as we wound through our guided downward path.
The Museum and the Memorial had been the anchors of my trip. I knew I would build my itinerary around them. Other than that, like a good ethnographer, I observed how people behaved around one another and eavesdropped on their conversations at a baseball game or a restaurant, to learn more about the locals. At the garden outside of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, I watched a group of young Black women picnic, dance and play charades. Once in a while, this introvert, after half a glass of wine at a bar, during a break in the NBA finals, might even talk to the natives.
Among a city of specters of the past, the place that gave me life was the Rosa Parks Museum. The Montgomery Bus Boycott is a familiar history to most high schoolers (so far) and alive in popular imagination. To be honest, I had approached this pilgrimage like a perfunctory “just-paying-my-respect’ visit to a gravesite of a distant relative. But what I saw there bolstered my patience for the long arc of justice. I learned, for instance, that Parks wasn’t the first Black woman in the city to be arrested for not giving up her bus seat to a white man. Earlier that same year (1955), a 15-year-old by the name of Claudette Colvin was arrested and convicted for the same “crime.” Her lawyer was Fred Gray, who would also become Parks’ defender. Gray later argued the Browder v. Gayle case in front of the Supreme Court successfully, which put a joyful end to the bus boycott a year after it had begun. Although Gray couldn’t stop Colvin’s conviction, that experience had helped him sharpen his arguments for the bigger fight. Fail fast; learn fast.
The boycott took place on a Monday after Parks’ arrest the previous Thursday. That tens of thousands of bus-dependent people participated in the boycott with just a few days’ notice was no accident. It took a lot of behind-the-scenes organizing; in this case, Women’s Political Council (WPC). Activist Jo Ann Robinson and a couple of students at Alabama State College mimeographed 35,000 flyers about the boycott and passed them out all over town. What was meant to be a one-day boycott went so well that the community decided to keep going. The yearlong grassroots organizing was what made the legal strategy viable. All of this reaffirms for me that history is made by everyday people (with a lot of organizing), even though History (with a capital H) likes to sanctify only selected heroes. (Incidentally, Parks wasn’t even one of the four named plaintiffs in the Browder case, but Colvin was.)
It was also interesting to learn that the initial demands for the boycott did not include desegregation in public transportation. Instead, the leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted only respect for riders and more Black bus drivers in Black neighborhoods. King, all but 25 years old at the time, was shocked by how indifferent the powers that be were to these moderate demands, and how violent the white public’s reactions were. (His house was fire-bombed.) It was the lack of progress on these smaller demands that pushed the organizers to become bolder.
The lesson? Don’t low-ball yourself, cuz these motherfuckers won’t give you even half an inch - though I don't think those are the exact words MLK would use.
As I was sharing these insights online, a follower and I started a dialogue about “white privilege.” She said not all white people had “white privilege.” It’s that classic “what about socio-economic status” argument. I countered that if white privilege is about the ability to buy expensive things, yes, many working-class whites don’t have that “privilege.” I also offered the example of Clifford and Virginia Durr and the contributions this white couple made to the boycott. Clifford was one of the lawyers supporting Parks. E.D. Nixon asked Durr to accompany him to the police station after Parks’ arrest because Nixon was afraid that they wouldn’t let a Black man bail Parks out. Durr also partnered with Fred Gray to defend both Colvin and Parks in court.
His wife Virginia was a good friend of Parks’. Virginia Durr, a Wellesley dropout due to financial reasons, was an activist in the only interracial political organization in Montgomery at the time. In fact, she convinced Parks to go to Tennessee for a training on desegregation just months prior to her arrest. This probably had a major influence on Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on the bus. During the boycott Durr sometimes gave rides to Black workers to keep the boycott going.
Sometimes white allyship requires white privilege. Maybe having it is not the problem. What you do with it is.
I also thought about the white bus driver who called the police on Parks. He was probably not making a lot of money as a bus driver. Yet, working class whites were often called upon to defend white supremacy, while incurring most of the risks in this defense. When the bus company decided to close down the bus lines in Black neighborhood as a retaliation to the boycott, I wondered if this bus driver was among the first to be laid off.
History haunts like a ghost, because like a ghost all it wants is to be seen.
In the children’s wing of the Rosa Parks Museum, they’ve made a replica of the Montgomery bus. It’s supposed to be a time machine that takes its passengers all the way back to the time of slavery. The bus shakes while the screens on the walls go swirling tie-dye, like it was traveling through the passage of time. On that Friday morning I was the only one there, and they ran the program for me, anyway. The special effects are cheesy, but a middle-aged man is hardly the intended audience. About five minutes into it when our hologram guide - a Black actress playing someone at the time of the bus boycott - was about to explain the origin of the name “Jim Crow,” the staff stopped the show and came in. He apologized. A large group had just come in. Would I mind letting them in and starting the show all over again?
You mean this is not really a time machine, I wanted to joke. The jig is up. I just smiled and said, sure.
The “large group” was about 30 elementary school students with their 3 adult chaperons. It was majority white, with a significant group of Black young people, a sort of the reverse of the city’s composition. There was one Asian kid. The bus shook again and the children squealed in delight or mockery, I couldn’t tell. But they had become my show. Like a good ethnographer, I watched their reactions to past atrocities. Who was sitting with whom? Who was making noises and not paying attention? Who was laughing to deflect? Who was quiet? Who was bored? I disaggregated my observations by race, and my findings were inconclusive. If children are our future, I had no idea what this future holds.
It was a lot, what these youngsters were being exposed to. I wondered how much they were able to grasp in that moment. I thought about all the efforts the Right had made to keep histories like this away from public education. We were traveling back through time, and there was not enough time.
And in that moment I began to appreciate the city for holding all these contradictions. The students would not be able to take in and make sense of everything. I’m in my fifties and I still got something new from what I thought was a familiar history. I wanted to tell the young ones, things will happen in your lives, maybe not very good things, and the past will show itself and it will feel a little different each time. The past is not something we learn and put away.