Freedom Riders Museum

By on 4 April, 2018 in Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

In an era of an infinite sea of always-available television shows, music and movies, it’s increasingly rare to be denied an entertainment experience. If you know where to stream or download (and pay, at least in theory, for the appropriate licenses), you can pretty much grab any information or diversion at any time.

That’s why it was so maddening that our city was home to a new civil rights museum (opened in 2011) and we couldn’t find out how to make the time to get there. It is only open for four hours a day, right in the middle of the workday, five days a week, closed on Mondays. It’s a vital site, owned and operated by a public entity, the Alabama Historical Commission. But despite the crucial role for this place in our shared narrative, we just never made it by there … until last week.

You’ve probably driven right by the place. It’s downtown near the federal courthouse (210 S Court Street). It has a Greyhound sign out front because it used to be a bus station. And it was at this bus station, here in the downtown of the city we live in, where the police allowed a mob to nearly murder a group of people who were trying to call attention to injustice.

Shelves upon shelves of books have been written about the 1961 Freedom Rides and their role in calling the nation’s eyes to a multi-decade struggle urging America to live up to its stated ideals. But as Dorothy Walker (the site director) told us when we walked in, there’s nothing like being in the place where it actually happened.

One of the first things you notice upon walking in is that the museum is pretty much just one decent-sized room. The reason? The federal government (which owns the building, along with the gigantic courthouse behind it) had to take some of the museum’s space to run the federal court’s mailroom operations after a postal poison scare (likely the April 2013 ricin event, or perhaps the 2003 one). So the museum doesn’t have all the space that it wants. They (the Historical Commission) also own the building across the street (the Moore Building) and want to expand the museum over there too, but a lot of (expensive) work needs to be done to make the place ready for the public.

The former bus station itself is on the National Historic Register, and obviously a stop on the National Civil Rights Trail. Admission is merely $5, and we were glad we went.

In the current space, there’s not so much of a museum “collection” of artifacts as there is a series of art exhibits inspired by the civil rights movement, plus an impeccably curated selection of gift shop books. Dorothy Walker is a fountain of information, so if she’s the volunteer staffing the site when you attend, you’ve hit the jackpot. She said she probably gets more out-of-state and international visitors to the museum than she does locals, which is a shame, since the story of the beatings is such a part of local history. It’s ugly, but it’s real.

It’s not just that, in the words of Martin Luther King that the freedom rides were “a psychological turning point in our whole struggle.” It’s also that the most brutalized riders, people like Rep. John Lewis and Jim Zwerg, are still alive, and can still tell their story of what it means to sacrifice for freedom. And those who were in the mob and urging it on? Some of them are still around too, and their sons and daughters may be our neighbors. We’re still living in the wake of what it means that this happened here, and what it means to heal.

The museum is likely to get a lot of attention (along with pretty much every other local civil rights site) when the new Equal Justice memorial opens this month. The city is going to be flooded with celebrities and activists and onlookers. And it’s also the bicentennial of our state, which the state’s tourism offices are taking great pains to remind us. We’ll all want to have our best faces forward, but we’ll all also want to be honest about the oppression and resistance to it that are among the animating forces of this place.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with one cat, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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