In 1961, whites in this former Confederate capital pulled out all the stops to mark the centennial of the swearing-in of Jefferson Davis, president of the breakaway slave states.
Three Southern governors attended, decked out in period costumes, along with the mayor, an outspoken segregationist. About 1,200 Montgomerians put on a secession-themed pageant every day for a week. Men around Alabama grew beards to 19th century lengths to mark the occasion.
There was a beauty contest, parades attended by thousands and a “Confederate Drummer Boy” event for kids.
On Saturday, the 150th anniversary event will bear some similarities: Hundreds of men are expected to march through the heart of Montgomery. Some will parade in Confederate gray. Some will display the controversial battle flag. On the steps of the white-domed state Capitol, an ersatz Davis will place his hand on a Bible. And a band will play “Dixie.”
But so far, this year’s festivities are generating scant buy-in from city and state officials, and relatively little buzz among locals.
Mayor Todd Strange said he probably won’t attend. Randy George, president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t have the event on his to-do list. The office of Republican Gov. Robert Bentley — who, like Strange and George, is white — did not respond to a query on the matter.
“I hadn’t even heard it was happening,” said Rhonda Campbell, 43, the manager of a payday loan business near the parade route, echoing many residents interviewed last week.
The event is being organized by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the self-described “hereditary organization” for descendants of Confederate soldiers. Like other efforts by the group to mark the Civil War anniversary — December’s “Secession Ball” in Charleston, S.C.; a move to create a Mississippi license plate honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate general and Klansman — it is likely to generate heat and headlines.
And yet Saturday’s event may also demonstrate the extent to which romantic notions of the “Lost Cause” have become less a defining trait and more a niche issue as the 21st century South prepares for years of sesquicentennial events.
Thomas V. Strain Jr., a national board member of Sons of Confederate Veterans and march organizer, said some of that is to be expected: “It’s just not as easy to market three or four generations out,” he said.
But Strain and the group acknowledge running into other problems. A recent post by a member on a reenactors’ website encouraged marchers to stay at the downtown Embassy Suites because staffers at the nearby Renaissance Hotel had “shown themselves to be Confederate Heritage unfriendly.”
Strain, a 39-year-old nursery worker from Athens — a north Alabama city sacked by Union forces in May 1862 — said he’s had a hard time finding a legislative sponsor to allow his group to fly a Confederate flag on the Capitol’s south lawn. (The group eventually obtained permission from Republican state Sen. Greg Reed.)
Perhaps, Strain said, lawmakers were just busy this time of year. But he also wondered whether even here, in the cradle of the Confederacy, state leaders have succumbed to “being politically correct.”
The era of institutionalized racism, Strain said, was “an awful time in our history.” He said he simply feels compelled to honor his many forebears who sacrificed for the Southern cause. He wasn’t out to hurt feelings, he said, but the Civil War is something the city can’t escape.
In Montgomery, a curiously sleepy city of 202,000 on the southern banks of the Alabama River, civic leaders are most focused these days on reviving the ghostly old retail districts surrounding the capital’s dignified and imposing government buildings, and attracting more outside business like the $1.4-billion Hyundai plant that opened here in 2005, adding 2,700 jobs.
But they too acknowledge that such goals are tangled up with Southern history.
That past can feel ever present in downtown Montgomery. Just yards from the starting point of Saturday’s march is a marker on the spot where seamstress Rosa Parks boarded a bus in 1955 and sparked the famous bus boycott. Another marks the building where a telegram was sent April 11, 1861, to Charleston, authorizing the attack on Ft. Sumter, the first military action of the Civil War. A third marks the site of the old slave market, where a male field hand could be purchased in the 1850s for $1,500.
The journey up Dexter Avenue will take marchers past rows of empty buildings, victims of white flight, the lure of suburban malls, and an economic climate complicated by Montgomery’s vexing public relations problem.
That was one of the conclusions drawn in 2006 by Atlanta consulting company Market Street Services, which was hired by the Chamber of Commerce to help sketch a path to revitalization. One key finding: The city, which is 55% African American, still had a race issue. “A culture of intolerance, perceived or real, will hold the Montgomery area back over time,” the consultants warned.
Like many Southern cities, Montgomery has acknowledged its racial problems and, in some cases, transformed them into tourist attractions.
Recent years have seen the opening of a Civil Rights Memorial Center, a Rosa Parks Library and Museum, and the restored parsonage that was home to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The bus terminal where a group of black and white Freedom Riders were beaten by a white mob in 1961 — three months after the Davis centennial— is to become a museum.
Chamber official Anna B. Buckalew rattled off these attractions proudly. But when asked to name new Confederate-themed attractions, she couldn’t think of one.
“The Chamber’s mission is all about job creation,” she said. “We’re very in tune to getting any obstacles out of the way. It came out that lack of diversity, of inclusiveness, was an obstacle.”
Still, state and local officials maintain that they aren’t shying away from Montgomery’s Confederate history.
“Whether we like it or not,” George, the Chamber president, said, choosing his words carefully, “Montgomery, Ala., is the birthplace of this very emotional happening. I’m sure for as long as I live, we will recognize or celebrate this issue here forever. And I’m not saying it’s the wrong thing to do.”
Today, the vestiges of the Old South take their place in the visitors center, alongside brochures for the zoo and railroad museum. One pamphlet touts a “Civil War Trail,” with a photo of the “First White House of the Confederacy,” the modestly elegant home where Davis lived briefly before the capital was moved to Richmond, Va.
A smaller pamphlet for the sesquicentennial directs tourists to a website for information on events in Tennessee, Georgia and elsewhere in Alabama.
“I think that everybody’s just been busy in moving the state forward,” said state tourism director Lee Sentell. “The sesquicentennial just hasn’t gained a lot of traction.”
In 1961, the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser argued that critics of the centennial celebration had “the imagination of an ant.” This year, the paper wrote of Davis’ swearing-in: “That tragic event, which led to so many other tragic events as the war unfolded, should not receive official sanction now.”
The state has sanctioned a $60 memorial medallion with a bust of Davis and a few other souvenirs to mark the 150th anniversary. It is also sponsoring two plays with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival — one about conflicts over slavery within the family of secessionist William Lowndes Yancey, the other about a Union supporter in Montgomery who made the first Confederate flag.
Mayor Strange said Montgomery’s goal was to “honor the past and look to the future.” In a recent interview, he seemed more interested in the latter, talking about plans to build an organic farm downtown and his vision for lofts and retail shops in empty Dexter Avenue buildings the city purchased.
Some of those buildings are wrapped in banners declaring, with a nod to King, “Start your DREAM here.”
State Rep. Alvin Holmes, one of the Freedom Riders beaten in 1961, said that many blacks believed the sesquicentennial march would be an affront. In Montgomery in recent decades, those kinds of affronts have typically been met with protests.
This time, Holmes said, African Americans have decided “to basically ignore” the marchers, in hopes that the media and public will ignore them, too.