Montgomery: Birthplace of a movement, hometown to a hillbilly…
You can run your fingers through the water, across the names, places, and dates, starting with the Supreme Court outlawing school segregation in Brown v. The Board of Education in 1954 and ending with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis in 1968. There are no signs telling you to do so, but just about everyone who visits the memorial is instinctively drawn to wet their hands in the thin layer of cold water that pours off the edge of the inscribed tablet. Just up the hill from the black, slick, wet rock of the Civil Rights Memorial is the infamous Alabama state capitol building— the White House of The Confederacy, longtime home to George C. Wallace, and stage to many significant moments during the fight for equality. A mere stones-throw from the steps of the capitol building is The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where King preached from 1954-1960 and “officially” began his quest for civil rights. All of this seemed like a lot grasp at 9 o’clock in the morning after a measly continental breakfast and pungent hotel coffee…
I was the only person in the Civil Rights Memorial building connected to the Southern Poverty Law Center in downtown Montgomery, other than two docents and a security guard who gave me a good pat down upon entering. Because I was the lone visitor at the time, I had my own personal guide through the small, but emotionally powerful exhibit that is dedicated to the people and stories inscribed in the black stone in front of the building. The docent asked if I was an architecture student, which I am not, and was pleasantly surprised that my purpose of visiting was simply to visit. Apparently, the center had opened just weeks before my visit, which was entirely by chance, and the place had been swamped with students of all sorts, reporters and photographers, and city officials. The center has a theater, classroom, interactive history stations, and a 20 by 40 foot “guestbook” called The Wall of Tolerance. I contributed my name to the wall, which, “records the names of people who have pledged to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance,” as described by the center, so if you are ever there add your name and look mine up. I left the center and memorial in a very contemplative sedation, and was quite satisfied with my decision to come through Alabama, because although the history of the state is tainted, revisiting that history is quite a remarkable experience.
The Hank Williams Museum, much like the Civil Rights Memorial and the streets of Montgomery, was eerily empty. The department store front, cubical style organization, and homemade, collage-esque exhibits made me feel bad for the operators of the place. It was depressing to see that the baby blue Cadillac that Hank had died in, some of his most famous stage outfits, and loads of original lyric and music writings were being so poorly displayed. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated the effort that the museum curators put into the collection, but I just felt as if the legacy of Hank could have been better served. Simply put: The museum is well worth the five dollars entrance fee, but the legendary artifacts inside deserve a better resting place… such as The Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Elvis has Graceland, while Hank Williams has a space that would be better suited for a Woolworth’s. The gravesite and public statue of Hiram "Hank" Williams were also surprisingly discreet for the world’s most famous country star, but as people close to the man have been quoted saying, “That’s the way ol’ Hank woulda wanted it to be.” Its as if the legend of “Hank” outshines the actual history of Hiram Williams.
The day in Montgomery passed quicker than just about any other day on the road. I don’t even remember eating that day until I arrived at the Dew Drop Inn in Mobile for ice tea, cheeseburgers and hotdogs. Note: According to Roadfood, Dew Drop Inn’s hamburgers are the source of inspiration for Jimmy Buffet’s song, “Cheeseburgers in Paradise.” In addition to the burgers, Mobile was a satisfying place to finally arrive in because it is where I would pick up Interstate 10, which provides a straight shot to the PCH and Pacific Ocean. Oh, the comfort of familiarity.
As I sat on my makeshift bed in the back of my car, parked in a rest stop somewhere between Mobile and Biloxi, I couldn’t help but think about the day that lay ahead. Tomorrow I would drive through the heart of Hurricane Katrina’s wreckage. For those of you who may have forgotten the details: On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina flooded 85 percent of greater New Orleans, killing more than 1,800 people, causing more than $81 billion in damage, and leaving over 100,000 people homeless. It spooked, but excited me that in a few hours I would be driving across Lake Pontchartrain’s 24 mile causeway heading directly into New Orleans’ 7th, 8th, and 9th wards, the areas devastated most severely.
“My head is so full I don’t think I can sleep…”