"The Believers..." Alabamians Remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert E. Lee

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Next month marks fifty years since the death of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior. All month long, the APR news team is looking at King’s work and impact here in Alabama. Each year, America honors King on the third Monday in January. The nation takes a day off work and school to remember his accomplishments. Alabama is one of only two states that also celebrates another man on the same day as Dr. King.

“He asked a question: why do we celebrate Robert E. Lee’s birthday?”

That’s Carl Jones. He’s speaking at the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Robert E. Lee celebration.

“Well if Lee’s birthday is not worthy of celebration, apart from Jesus Christ, I don’t know whose is.”

Jones and his supporters all gathered in the auditorium at the state archives building in Montgomery. Men in grey confederate uniforms sit side by side with men in motorcycle jackets and women dressed in their Sunday best. The mood moves between celebration and the sense that a grand cause is under attack.

Credit Allison Mollenkamp

“It really has been a tough year for us, hasn’t it?”

That’s Pat Godwin, of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

“But actually not just this year. It all began on the seventeenth of June, 2015, when in Charleston, South Carolina, Dylan Roof started this avalanche of cultural genocide.”

Dylan Roof is the South Carolina man who became the first person sentenced to death for committing federal hate crimes. He shot nine black churchgoers to death in 2015. The genocide Godwin is referring to is against all things Southern.

“Unfortunately, our battle changes faces. In eighteen-sixty-one they allowed us to fight with bullets.”

This is Pat McMurry. He’s a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Mechanized Cavalry.

“They won’t let us do that today, so far. But today we’re being fought against with weapons that are far more long-reaching and powerful than a bullet.”

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery.
Credit Allison Mollenkamp

The idea of an ongoing battle is shared by a very different group of people that met a few days earlier just blocks away. The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church sits one block from the state capitol, and the sanctuary is filled to standing room only. Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior served as pastor here from the mid to late 1950’s. There are women in church hats and others in shirts emblazoned with King’s picture or quotes from his speeches.

One notable difference between this event and the one for Robert E. Lee is the diversity. This crowd looks like what King would have wanted, black and white people sitting together.

The main event of the day was the current pastor of what was once King’s church: the Reverend Cromwell Handy.

“I stand here today to remind us here that fifty, sixty years ago there was one who led foot soldiers who are even in this room today, in order to build a bridge, not only to cross a bridge, but to build a bridge for those who come after.”

Reverend Cromwell Handy speaks to participants at the Martin Luther King Day March in Montgomery.
Credit Allison Mollenkamp

There’s a sense of a fight here too, though Reverend Handy was careful to never name names who his congregation might be fighting against. It’s easy to figure out, though, with this story about the newly married Martin Luther King, Jr.

“When he married his wife Coretta, the newly-weds were rejected by a white only hotel. So the couple opted to spend their wedding night at a black-owned funeral home.”

Several members of the audience also remember the days of Rosa Parks and Dr. King.

“I actually participated in the parade, I mean in the march from Selma to Montgomery in that I marched from St. Jude campus to the capitol.”

That’s Jacquelyn Houzz. She splits the year between Chicago and Montgomery.

“It was overwhelming. My mom was very active in Civil Rights and she allowed us to stay home from school that day and participate.”

“And it brought back all those good memories.”

Credit Allison Mollenkamp

Annie B. Lavette was a student in Montgomery when Dr. King was pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist church. She enjoyed the birthday celebration event.

“He tried so hard to instill in us to be as one people.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans event wasn’t explicitly about race or slavery. But let’s go back to that moment where Pat Godwin mentioned Dylan Roof. She called the after-effects of his actions a cultural genocide. She and her compatriots mourn the loss of flags and monuments. What she made no mention of was the nine black people that Dylan Roof murdered. The Lee event wasn’t about race, but the crowd was very conspicuously white, save for three or four exceptions.

Alabama celebrates Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee on the same day every year, despite the fact that we are one of only two states left that do so. There have been efforts to change this, to either do away with Robert E. Lee day or move it to another part of the year. For now, though, the dual holidays serve to demonstrate the reality of life in Alabama. We are still divided. The Sons of Confederate Veterans and the congregation at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church look back at different pasts and they dream of different futures.

There was one last thing that separated the two events. The average age of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is fifty-six. On Dexter Avenue, elders who marched with King stood to hold hands with a crowd that included plenty of young people, including children who before last year had never known a white president.