Montgomery’s official population is 205,000. This is pretty small for a US city and Alabama’s state capital doesn’t even sneak into the US’s largest 100 conurbations. This came as no surprise to us as we walked the streets during the 24 hours we spent in Montgomery: in January it’s a ghost town.
Montgomery is a city that would be easy to miss on a map. It sits between bigger, better known southern cities Mobile and Birmingham. The backdrop to Montgomery is neither coast nor hills and it is neither bustling metropolis or sedate town. Montgomery is not somewhere you would put a big red circle round when deciding where to land in the states. If you “did Alabama” you’d probably think about scooting past Montgomery missing out this little administrative capital. However if you did shoot by you really would be missing out on one of the most important and inspirational places in America.
Montgomery punches way above its size in terms of significance in two of the most defining times in US history. Montgomery played a strategic role for the Confederacy during the American Civil War, housing in fact the South’s first White House. The old Confederate flag can still be seen flying proudly across the city. This city is proud of its history even when that history itself is not so proud.
Montgomery’s role in this Civil War is mightily overshadowed by its status as the birthplace of the modern Civil Rights Movement. With something so grand, all encompassing and all consuming for the US nation as the Civil Rights Movement was in the 1960s it is peculiar to think that one city could claim to be its birthplace. It seems incongruous to distill something that can be traced back to the civil war over a hundred years before and point to a city and say “it started there”. But not only did the modern Civil Rights Movement start in Montgomery it started on one x four square meter spot. A bus stop. The moment Rosa Parks refused, politely, to give up her seat to a white man who had boarded the bus, the future of America changed. A movement was born. And Montgomery sealed its place in history.
Before we could test this history on our whistle stop tour we checked in to our hotel. The Montgomery DoubleTree is the Hilton group at its best and was certainly one of the best value hotels we stayed in while in the south. A massive atrium at the centre of the hotel gives the place a real heart. Every room looks into the space and thus a friendly and open vibe is created. The communal space is comfy and cool and the massive tree painted on the wall from floor to ceiling gave the space real character. Several business meetings where taking place over lunch and this is obviously where everyone hides on a freezing Tuesday afternoon in Montgomery. Although the DoubleTree is obviously a hotel for visitors it seemed to play a role in supporting the business community in the city.
Everyone raves about the food in the south and it was great to see that the hotel bar menu had a very southern feel. To protect us from the cold outside we opted for a warm salad and fried chicken with a blue cheese sauce washing it down two of the fine American draft ales.
For a small city we had a very long list of “must see” things so we headed out leaving behind very little meat on the bones of the chicken but a large dollop of a simply too rich blue cheese sauce; in general the super calorific blue cheese sauce is not for the faint of heart.
Braced against the chill we moved slowly against the wind to that famous bus stop. Rosa’s stop was walking distance from our hotel, as in fact were most of the sites in Montgomery. Heading left from The Hilton DoubleTree we were able to quickly see the capitol hill and all of the Civil War monuments. Heading right will take you up past all of the Civil Rights plaques and buildings.
Heading for a bus stop when you don’t plan to catch a bus seemed like a strange thing to do especially when you have just arrived in a place. A bus stop is a peculiar monument and as you would expect a bus stop is hardly a magnificent place: it’s a disused bus stop after all. However standing where Rosa stood probably just as cold as she was on that December night gave you a chill not brought on by the wind. Standing reading the placard gave me a sense of wonder at her strength. She was tired. And she had had enough. We were enlivened and now bursting with excitement to see the other inspirational sites in Montgomery.
The Civil Rights Monument with its mission to spread the work, plight and sacrifice of all those who played a role in the Civil Rights Movement in the US was a particular highlight. We attached ourselves to a tour party and were warmly welcomed into the group. Our guide was fantastic taking time to discuss every picture, plaque and piece of history. The Monument itself is very serene. A simmering small waterfall continually rolling over a large stone base with the inscriptions of all of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for a better more equal America. Martin Luther King’s words sit just under the waterfall: “Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
On our way back to the DoubleTree we passed a street sweeper merrily singing and dancing with his broom as his partner. He was obviously used to having the streets to himself in January. With no one around there was little to clean. But even if the streets had been awash with litter I think he would still have been moonwalking as he swept.
Our final destination was one of Montgomery’s best known restaurants Wintzell’s Oyster Bar. And with most restaurants pictures say much more than words. For those reading this on email the link is here.
Wintzell's Montgomery - Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires
Like those deep fried oysters Montgomery packs a punch. So get out that marker pen draw a big red circle round this most civil of cities and add it to your list of “must sees” in the south.