Freedom and Dreams

Civitaph 5Montgomery is full of history. That we all know. But as we go about our everyday lives, we sometimes miss the importance of certain sites. Wesley Phillips Newton ends his book on Montgomery and World War II, Montgomery in the Good War, with a story that left me saddened by the event he relates in the past, relieved to know that change has come, and curious to see a monument I have driven by, but gave little attention.

Newton explains that, in Montgomery after World War II, “there was very little effort to show any respect for the Negroes who had served their country.” Due to not only a lack of respect of also of opportunity, many black soldiers and their families left Montgomery in a “post war flow of blacks northward.” As we today know, change was needed, and change did come. In only one example of that need, Newton tells about a dedication service for a monument to fallen Montgomery servicemen.

In the spring of 1946, the Civitan Club erected a cenotaph (a monument to the deceased that is not in the place of burial) in the square where Washington, Church, and South Court meet, in honor of service men and women from Montgomery County who had died in World War II. In the spring, the area was blocked off and chairs set up for a dedication. The deceased service men and women’s families received invitations to the ceremony saying that they had reserved seats. A black couple, Sherman White, Sr. and his wife, were invited as their son had been killed in action. However, when they arrived, they were refused a seat due to their race. In his letter to the Montgomery Advertiser, Sherman White, Sr. explained that his son “was one of the 99th Pursuit Squadron…He paid the supreme sacrifice over or near Sicily.” As opposed to standing in the back, Mr. & Mrs. White chose to leave. Newton continues that the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, Charles G. Dobbins, “printed Mr. White’s letter and commented “The experience of these Negro parents of a dead American soldier is an unhappy commentary upon Democracy.”

As the years went by, the monument was in need of repair. The Civitan Club partnered with the city for those improvements, and on Veteran Days, November 11, 2010, the monument was re-dedicated. According to the Montgomery Civitan website, Secretary Charles Hollifield provided some design history of the Cenotaph, which the Civitans call “the Civitaph.” Secretary Hollifield explained that “the Civitaph was designed to perpetuate the ideals for which the men and women died, namely the Four Freedoms.” The four pylons represent Freedom of Want, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom of Speech. From the center of the pylons, the original design featured a floodlight that beamed “heavenward and was to symbolize the eternal light that would come from the Four Freedoms.” The four openings at the bottom were to allow plantings and thus “make it a living monument.” The four areas contain soil from many World World II battlefields. During restoration, the interior floodlight could not be replaced, so currently three floodlights illuminate the marble monument at night. The flagpole is also new and has a light so the flag can stay up at night.

I thought about the many times I had driven by the Civitaph without giving it a second glance. Now it holds layers of meaning for me. I think about the service men and women who died for our freedom in World War II. I think about the Civil Rights struggle and the lives lost for freedom. I think about the Four Freedoms. I am not convinced that we are availed of all four. But this is Montgomery, the City of Dreams, and we can continue to expand our freedoms and our dreams.

Karren Pell is a writer, teacher, and performer who lives with her husband, Tim Henderson, and an assortment of cats and dogs in Capitol Heights. She is the author of three books. Her musical compositions range from commercial songs to theatrical works, with five musical adaptations to her credit.

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