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The Antidote

August 12, 2012

Thursday was all about equality. After spending a week seeing various celebrations of the Confederacy, we needed to see some history that would be uplifting instead of upsetting. Thursday was that day. It was not the most exciting day of the trip but it sure felt good. I don’t know if it’s ironic or fitting that we found the antidote to racism in a state that became internationally famous in the ’50s and ’60s for its deeply entrenched racism (and doesn’t exactly have a reputation for open-minded inclusiveness today), but either way I’ve got a real soft spot for Alabama now.

We started the day with something entirely unrelated: a guided tram tour of Hyundai Motor Mnufacturing watching cars get assembled. Hamster and I are both fascinated by factories–coordinated stations, the custom-made machines moving in strange ways, the sheer volume of production, the way raw materials become finished products in seconds, the illicit behind-the-scenes secret feel of watching it all happen. Sam says his favorite part of our trip so far was the World of Coke tour, especially the part where we watched glass bottles being filled with Coke. Watching cars being put together, well that would be the same kind of cool on a larger scale. Or at least that was the plan. When we pulled up to Hyundai the very apologetic security guard told us that VIP tours were being conducted today and all public tours were all cancelled for the day. Seeing our disappointment, he called inside to ask if we could tag along on one of the VIP tours but the answer was no. We were devastated. But after a suitable mourning period of a minute or two, we both decided not to let it ruin our day and we turned the page, excited for our next stop. And on the bright side it meant we were once again well ahead of schedule.

On to the Rosa Parks Museum, a stately building in what turned out to be the only reasonably attractive part of town. (While thankfully much has changed since Parks’s ride, physically Montgomery doesn’t seem to have improved much at all. Outside of a few blocks in the middle of downtown, the city still looks a lot like it does in all that black-and-white news footage from the ’50s and ’60s: ugly, poor, and run down.) The museum is clearly geared toward groups on school trips, but there was nobody else there when we arrived, so we had the two-part tour to ourselves. Part 1 is a ride in a semi-replica of the Cleveland Avenue bus that Parks took that fateful night, only this one has a robot driver and is a “time machine” that takes its riders on a video journey from the Dred Scott decision in 1857 to Parks’s ride in 1955. It was a good way to ease Sam into Civil Rights Day, as my wife called my plan for Thursday, because there was a fun element to the upsetting stories and a positive central message that if you keep fighting for what’s right, things will eventually get better. The rest of the museum focused on 1955 to the present day, and started with us standing outside a more realistic replica of the bus and looking in, where cleverly designed and placed video screens made it seem like we were watching the events of that night as they were narrated for us by a prerecorded voice.

I know there are many people who think that Rosa Parks was merely tired that night and should not be celebrated as a hero. But as the museum makes quite clear, she had long been active in the fight to end segregation and, though her protest may have been a spur-of-the-moment decision, she knew exactly what she was doing and deserves to be celebrated. The city of Montgomery and the civil rights movement were fortunate to have her.

Meanwhile, Sam’s favorite part of the museum was at the end when he got to sit on a bronze bus seat next to a bronze Rosa Parks.

A close second, though, was when he saw a small display about civil rights activist Ralph David Abernathy. Let me explain. He and I have both been a mildly obsessed with Ralph David Abernathy since … a few days earlier when we drove into Atlanta on a highway named for him. Sam was initially amused by his name and somehow, by the end of a rather dumb conversation about things that Abernathy’s mother might say to him, it quickly became a running gag for us to exclaim, “Ralph David Abernathy, you silly goose!” as a non sequitor. Well, you can imagine Sam’s excitement when a giant photo of that silly goose was waiting for us in Montgomery!

We then drove about half a mile (passing the famous Court Square fountain where Parks boarded that fateful bus) to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. presided (and lived) for several years. We didn’t go inside but the exterior is beautiful building with a rather unusual two-story entry.

Perhaps its most enjoyable physical feature, though, is that it is literally just down the street from the state capitol, on the steps of which Jefferson Davis stood when he was sworn in as president of the Confederacy. In fact the buildings are so close that you can’t stand in front of one without seeing the other.

On that positive note, we left Montgomery–the midpoint of our trip according to both the calendar and the map–and headed north.

Our next stop was Birmingham, the Magic City. Instead of diving straight into more civil rights stuff we were welcomed first by Vulcan, a 56-foot tall cast iron statue (the tallest ever cast in the U.S.) of the Roman god of fire holding a hammer and anvil. The statue, a tribute to the iron and steel mines and mills that built the city, stands atop a much taller pedestal overlooking downtown Birmingham from a small but pretty public park that bears his name, and serves as the unofficial symbol of the city. Much more interesting to us, however, is the observation deck just under the feet of the statue. We opted to skip the elevator and climbed the 159 stairs to the observation deck. I enjoyed the panoramic views of the city and it surroundings; Sam enjoyed looking up at Vulcan’s butt.

We ate lunch in the park before hitting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a simultaneously disturbing and inspiring museum that Sam and I were both able to enjoy thanks to a little compromise. He was, understandably, getting a little tired of educational venues so I struck a deal with him to get us both through the museum happy: he would read the brief text on the large summary signs at the beginning of each part of the exhibit and he didn’t need to read or look at anything else if he didn’t want to. That gave me enough time to look a bit closer and call his attention to the parts I thought he’d find interesting. He chose to linger long enough to watch a few videos here and there and to press buttons at some interactive parts, and I think he came away with a real understanding of both the suffering and the determination of those fighting for civil rights for the 100 years following the Civil War.

Across the street from the museum in one direction is the 16th Street Baptist Church where (as we learned inside the museum) four young girls were killed in a KKK bombing. Across the street in the other direction is a one-square-block public park filled with statues related to the civil rights movement: a small statue of King sort of welcomes people to the park and a central, circular path is dotted with darker statues of protestors being sprayed with fire hoses, attacked by police dogs, and jailed. As you may have noticed, Sam usually likes to mimic the poses of statues but he wasn’t quite sure how to handle these. His mischievous side wanted to play but he also understood the intended tone. He ended up doing both: he insisted that I take two pictures of him at every statue, one serious and one playful. I’d share them here but I’m as torn as he was, and I think it’s probably best to keep them between the Hamster and me.

We had planned to visit the ballpark where the Double-A Birmingham Barons play, but of course it started to rain pretty hard as we finished up in the park. Apparently, getting rained on at some point every day is kind of our thing now. So instead we took the advice of the extremely friendly ticket-taker at the Civil Rights Institute and went to the McWane Science Center. It was clearly the right idea, because we got a great parking spot right out front, and as we got out of the car Sam noticed that the car parked in front of us had Alaska plates (our second Alaska plate so far–we need only Idaho and Hawaii to get all 50), and its owners (a young family of three) were just coming back. I stuck up a brief conversation and it turns out they had indeed spent the past eight days driving down from Alaska. “When you hit the U.S. border, that’s about the halfway point,” the dad told us kind of matter-of-factly. I suddenly felt a lot better about my seemingly not so long drive home.

Anyway, the ticket lady at McWane let us in free because it was less than an hour till closing, and we ran around like maniacs trying to enjoy every little bit while we still could. We played tug of war, we blew giant bubbles, we used air pressure to shoot a tennis ball up to the ceiling, we had wheelchair races, we withstood 75-mph winds, and we pet a live shark (it felt spongy, in case you’re wondering). Suddenly Sam didn’t mind a little education. Maybe the Civil Rights Institute needs to have more rides, or a shark tank.

And it was still only 6pm! We checked into our hotel, a Wingate that was super nice, super quiet, and so stupidly inexpensive I thought the price might be a mistake. Except for the rain, Civil Rights Day was a success. The negative taste in our mouths was gone, institutionalized racism had been replaced by institutions celebrating humanity’s triumphs over adversity, and we settled down to watch some Olympics with clear minds and happy hearts. And did I mention we got to pet a shark? Magic City indeed.

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