Dark Tourism: The world comes to Montgomery

By Tom Baxter

Suddenly Montgomery is hot, not only in the literal sense.

The New York Times recently named it one of the world’s 52 top tourist destinations for 2018, a distinction celebrated with a street marker in front of the Alabama State Capitol, mere yards from where George Wallace once railed against that paper. A revitalized downtown entertainment district was buzzing last weekend. In the lobby of the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel and Spa, you see troops of Brits and Aussies, making their way along the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, and last weekend, a big, multi-day Hindu wedding.

What has really made Montgomery hot, however, is the recent opening of two projects of the Montgomery-based Peace and Justice Initiative: the Legacy Museum, located in a building once used as a holding area for slaves, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a six-acre installation on which the known victims of lynchings are memorialized by a series of rusting metal rectangles representing each county in which lynchings took place. The box-like structures, suspended from a ceiling, begin at eye level and rise slowly in silent representation of bodies hanging.

It may seem jarring to approach subjects like lynching, slavery and racial terror in terms of their value as a travel destination, but there is a name for this in South Africa: “Dark Tourism.” The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, which has been cited as an inspiration for the Montgomery project, is adjacent to a big casino-amusement park complex.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice

The memorial, which sits on a hillside overlooking the city, appears to have drawn more visual inspiration from the “memory boxes” at the lesser-known Red Locations Museum in South Africa. With it and the Maya Lin Civil Rights Memorial, Montgomery can now claim two of the most distinctive contemporary public installations in the country. But at great price.

“It’s hard to look at, but if I see this many people from all walks of life coming, then obviously it serves a purpose,’ Montgomery Advertiser columnist Duane Rankin  said, after finding the names of likely family members on his first visit.

The names of the lynched embossed on the boxes can be fitted into a single column for most counties, but the 35 names for Fulton County, most of them from the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, stretch over two.

Fulton County box

The name of Leo Frank doesn’t appear on the box for Cobb County, and that oversite is understandable, given that this is a memorial specifically aimed at the oppression of African-Americans. But since the memorial has been conceived as an ongoing project, the EJI might want to consider the impact American lynchings had in Germany and other countries, and the global firestorm of violence to which it contributed.

The memorial is located near Herren Street, where my parents lived when they moved to Montgomery in the 1940s, and not far from the boarding house operated by Hank Williams’ mother. It was on the streets down the hill that Bill Traylor, homeless and in his eighties, began his artistic journey.

In 1955, the men who worked in the L&N yards near where the museum is located joined a national strike over the company’s refusal to match a $3.40 monthly medical insurance payment. The operators at the downtown Southern Bell facility went on strike at about the same time, which put a significant portion of the city’s white working class on picket lines.

This cannot have escaped the notice of the shrewd and observant people, like E.D. Nixon, Jo Ann Robinson and Jackie Carr, who that year formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and with a new preacher from Atlanta as their flag-bearer won the victory which sparked the Civil Rights Movement.

There are different versions of how much it took to bail out Rosa Parks after she was arrested refusing to give up her seat on a city bus that year, and whether Nixon paid the bail directly or gave the money to the white lawyer Clifford Durr, distinguished but penniless after his tenure in the Roosevelt administration, to make the payment.

My father told a story about this which I’ve heard nowhere else. He said there was a machinist in the L&N yard who was the highest-paid black employee in the division, and that when Durr turned privately to Nixon to ask for the money, Nixon turned privately to the machinist. True or not, that story speaks to the way class lines worked on both sides of the color line, and also how broke most people really were. Montgomery was a place that kept up appearances, and held its secrets close.

These days, an informational sign near the Alabama River proclaims Montgomery as “Alabama’s Cosmopolitan City.” At nearby Riverwalk Stadium, the music between innings at the Biscuits games is a mixture of pop, country and raggaeton.

It would be nice if this prosperity and openness stretched very far beyond the river, but the essence of the memorial and museum is about not ignoring things, and there are things you can’t ignore about Montgomery. For a city this size, it has a lot of “no-go” zones, and a murder rate higher than the national average.

It was hit hard by the Great Recession, and a lot of blighted business areas haven’t bounced back. One part of the city looks like the America Donald Trump described in the last election while another shows the expanse of the global boom.

The memorial and the museum were intended to start a conversation, and some of that conversation ought to be about the city they are in. Bill Traylor and Hank Williams are both wound up in the soul of Montgomery, but they still have some things to say to each other.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

3 replies
  1. Jeff says:

    We just visited Montgomery, Selma, Marian and Birmingham Alabama just to see Civil Rights museums and memorials. We found that it was far from dark. Our trip was highly meaningful, educational, poignant and most importantly enlightening.Report

    Reply
  2. Paula Matabane says:

    I’m glad that Baxter wrote about the Legacy Museum and Memorial but I’m dismayed at his lackluster emotions concerning it. Not once does he state or acknowledge that slavery and lynching represent the darkest nadir of white American violence against their fellow Americans due to color. Mr. Baxter fails to point out that white men (for the most part) were the perpetrators of these horrendous crimes against black humanity and a few non black people like Leo Frank, all in the name of white supremacy. In effect, Baxter sanitizes the very history of horror that the Museum and Memorial seek to expose thus, perhaps unintended, belittling their message.

    True, Leo Frank’s name is not on the black roll call, but if that list is to be expanded to other races why not include names of stalwart white men (and women) who died standing up for black freedom, especially white Radical Republicans and Freedmen’s Bureau employees lynched after the Civil War for supporting black freedom? Leo Frank was a victim of white supremacy but not because he stood up for black freedom. His murder should be mourned but perhaps not at the African American memorial. Perhaps there should be another memorial that shows the full impact of white supremacy on all corners of the South and nation.

    The term “Dark Tourism” seems pejorative for the millions (hopefully) who will eventually visit the EJI sites. For many that visit will be a pilgrimage, a journey to honor not gawk at the suffering of others caught up in the same wheel of suffering. I suppose Goree Island and other slave castles along the west coast of Africa could be called “Dark Tourism.” Indeed, I was told in 2010 that some Arab investor wanted to turn Goree Island into an amusement park. But I wept at Goree and left photos to honor my unknown ancestors who walked through one of those portals in chains. Tracing one’s ancestral paths is hardly “Dark tourism” which is a catchy, slick, academic term that does describe the gawking, loud chattering European tourists I saw on Goree Island. But it does not capture the heart and emotion of all visitors, irrespective of color or nationality.Report

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