MONTGOMERY, Ala. — What are we blue state types to make of Alabama, especially now that it is ground zero for a frontal assault on Roe v. Wade?
This aggressive attack on a woman’s right to choose is coming from a state consistently ranked among the lowest in the nation for quality of life, including availability of health care and education.
Yet even a short visit provides an abundance of evidence that Alabama is moving simultaneously in two directions. Many of its people and institutions are embracing social change, while others continue to idealize a mythical past. To tour the capital city is to be subject to an emotional and ideological whipsaw.
For example, the Alabama Supreme Court resides in a columned marble edifice looming over Dexter Avenue. In the ground floor rotunda, an enormous granite monument of the Ten Commandments was once on prominent display. In 2003, then Chief Justice Roy Moore lost his job for refusing to obey a federal judge’s order to remove the monument. Court officers can still point to where it once stood.
Current Chief Justice Tom Parker is a distinct contrast in style to the pugnacious Moore. He majored in history at Dartmouth, studied law in the U.S. and in Brazil, collects 18th century copies of scholarly legal treatises, and can quote with ease from historic texts and Blackstone’s Commentaries. Still, in a hallway outside his chamber, is a quote from Scripture: “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos 5:24).
Several blocks from the courthouse is the former site of Montgomery’s central slave market, the old Greyhound Bus Station and Freedom Rides Museum, the King Memorial Baptist Church, the Rosa Parks Museum, the Equal Justice Initiative’s New Legacy Museum, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
These sites acknowledge and confront Alabama’s deep ties to slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow and the struggle for civil rights. They do so with a clear public approach not found at home in Boston. There is, after all, no plaque outside Boston City Hall marking the use of an American flag on its pole as a spear to attack an African American bystander in 1976 during an anti-busing demonstration.
The Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum, opened just a year ago, brings an intense focus to the everyday cruelty of slavery as practiced in our country. Among the exhibits is a wall featuring advertisements for the sale of slaves and rewards for runaways.
For some the pain remains real today — as another visitor turns to her friend to say, “Do you have any notepaper? I think I just found my family.”
A short walk away is the First White House of the Confederacy. Here the genteel artifacts of ante-bellum Alabama — the tea and silver services, braided rugs, four poster beds, Jefferson Davis family portraits — tell the other part of the story.
Southerners will sometimes tell you that their history has created an easy relationship between blacks and whites, one we in the north do not understand. And, yes, today mixed-race groups and couples are a far more frequent sight on the streets of Montgomery than on the streets of Boston.
Perhaps no site better expresses Alabama’s split personality than the State Capitol building. The last few intersections leading to its entrance are painted with footprints to commemorate Martin Luther King’s 1965 march from Selma. But circle around to the back of the building, and there’s the Confederate Memorial Monument. The confederate flags that once flew there have been removed.
What remains are statues of infantry and cavalry soldiers, sailors and artillerymen, a cornerstone laid by Jefferson Davis in 1888 and the following inscription:
When this historic shaft shall crumbling lie
In ages hence in woman’s heart will be
A folded flag, a thrilling page unrolled
A deathless song of Southern chivalry.
Perhaps the 25 white male senators who passed Alabama’s statute outlawing abortion would say that they too have composed a deathless song of Southern chivalry. They may well believe it, although the bill was authored by a female state representative and signed into law by a female governor. But they represent only one strain, dominant for the time being, of a complicated community with a future that is impossible to predict.
Andrew Grainger is a retired associate justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court.