Dexter Parsonage Museum Tour
Looking at Trip Advisor for Montgomery, the Dexter Parsonage Museum Tour was by far the number 1 recommended attraction, with visitors raving about Dr Cherry’s tours. Well, safe to say, by the end of the tour I was trying to figure out if there was any way I could sell a school trip to Alabama to the school’s finance director, as I would love to take the students here. If you are ever anywhere near the vicinity of Montgomery, you must do this tour!
Dexter Parsonage, 309 South Jackson Street, was the home allocated to the pastor of Dexter Baptist Church, which between 1954 and 1960 was one Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The house is now preserved as it was when King and his family lived there (most of the furniture is authentic), and it was here that the Bus Boycott was partially planned, here that King calmed the crowds after the house was bombed (with his wife, Coretta, and their newborn daughter inside), and, most famously, here that King had his famous epiphany, where, after having received violent threats against his family on the phone, he believed he heard the voice of God telling him to stand up for justice and righteousness.
To be honest, it is Dr Cherry who is just as much an attraction as the house itself. As we were part of were a small group of four, and were early in the morning, we got a ‘super-duper-plus’ tour, and she talked a lot to us about her own life. She was born into segregation, and recounts how as a teenager her parents showed her the photograph of the corpse of Emmett Till – a 14-year-old murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman – to scare her into ‘staying in her place,’ and how she’d lived her life in defiance of that statement, gaining a PhD and then deciding to teach primarily in white schools in Alabama and Rhode Island. She was a true educator, and brought the inspiring legacy of Dr King to life, telling stories about him and how his philosophy of non-violent resistance set the tone for the Civil Rights Movement. The tour includes marriage advice, thoughts on the nature of love, and lots and lots of humour. It was a one-of-a-kind experience, and is an absolute must if you are in Montgomery. I can only thank Dr Sherry for an inspiring morning.
From the Dexter Parsonage Museum, we headed over to the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum, which is housed in a beautiful old mansion that the couple lived in for a time in the early 1930s. Aside from reading The Great Gatsby, I didn’t know that much about either Fitzgerald, except that they epitomised the ‘Jazz Age’ and that Zelda went mad. The museum brought to life their lives of literary excess in the 1920s, and then the inevitable disintegration of their intense and destructive romance: Zelda suffered extensive mental health problems and ultimately died in a fire in an asylum, whilst Scott died of a heart attack at aged 40, almost certainly hastened by his fondness for alcohol and chain-smoking. Admirable they were certainly not – Scott, for example, almost certainly sabotaged his wife’s novel as he felt threatened – but they were certainly fascinating.
Once again, the museum came with a fantastic and knowledgeable tour guide who had lots of time to talk and answer questions. Whilst I love the free museums in the UK, the US museums have been worth the (generally modest) entry fee every time, and having the guides has really added to our experience, especially because the group sizes have usually been very small.
From Montgomery we headed an hour west to Selma, driving up the National Historic Trail. along which thousands of Americans famously marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 in protest against the discriminatory voting practices used to exclude southern blacks from voting.
Our destination was the Edmund Pettus Bridge itself, site of the Bloody Sunday murders a few weeks earlier on March 7th, when the police had violently confronted voting rights activists, and start of the historic march. The bridge was illuminated by the dark skies of an approaching storm, and was certainly an atmospheric place.
We then wandered over the bridge to the Memorial Park and mural, and got chatting to Omika, the owner of a local souvenir store, and a New Yorker who’d moved a few years ago to Selma, where her family had originated from. We were the only tourists anywhere in sight (although there was a busy barbecue next door for local kids, preparing them for their upcoming back to school), and she was funny and happy to chat.
Sadly it seems that 50 years after the historic March that made its name famous Selma is going through hard times; Omika said that neighbourhoods are still largely self-segregated, that poverty is a major problem for both blacks and whites, and that politics in Alabama largely divides around racial lines, with most southern whites happy to vote for Trump and his supporters (she had some impressive anti-Trump posters that I really should have taken a picture of). Looking online bears out what she was saying about her fears for Selma, whilst these voting statistics from the 2012 presidential election from Alabama are pretty alarming about how divided the state is by race:
Having been inspired by Dr Sherry in the morning, it was sobering to see and hear exactly how much, despite the historic victories of the Civil Rights Movement, still hasn’t changed, and how the struggle for equality must continue.
From Selma, we drove onto Monroeville, which was another lovely backroad drive, and then checked into the motel, just in time to order in a mammoth southern takeaway from David’s Catfish House, a chain restaurant that does various southern-style fare. Unfortunately NBC at the motel had been inexplicably replaced with a movie preview channel, so after some failed adventures with Comcast we had to settle for watching half-hour intervals of it on as many electronic devices as we had (NBC.com only let you stream live for half an hour before requiring you to enter TV subscription details), moving from laptops to tablets before we finally managed to set up a BBC iPlayer hack. So, we only sort of saw the Rio Opening Ceremony – but at least we had a feast of crab legs, fried green tomatoes, catfish and popcorn shrimp to watch it with.
Highlights: Pretty much everything, but especially Dr Cherry’s tour of Dexter Parsonage.
Lowlights: Patchy coverage of the Olympics, hearing about the current situation in Selma.
Up next: Harper Lee, 91-year-olds operating tills, thunderstorms…