The small group of people at the meeting knew they would face violence for what they were about to do. Their homes would be bombed, they’d be arrested, maybe worse. They were committing their names to this anyway.
That included the surprised, 26-year-old local pastor who was quickly elected to lead the group. It was Martin Luther King Jr.’s first official civil rights leadership position, not long after finishing his thesis and starting as a full-time pastor in Montgomery.
“It had happened so quickly that I did not even have time to think it through. It is probable that if I had, I would have declined the nomination,” King later recalled in “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.”
Instead, he embraced it. Days after a seamstress named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat, King took over as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and, eventually, a wider movement. The violence came, including the bombing of the parsonage where King’s family lived, but the movement continued. King remained at its forefront until he was felled by an assassin’s bullet 13 years later.
Charles “C.P.” Everett stands in the spot where it all started, a simple basement space under wide windows inside the Mt. Zion AME Zion Church annex. Everett holds a pamphlet that describes that cold day in 1955 and how it changed American history. Most of the people who were at the meeting are identified by their arrest mugshots.
“It was an act of bravery I can only compare to what they did (in Philadelphia) where they came out and said they were going to defy the mother country,” Everett said. “It’s right here. And we were going to tear it down.”
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Everett has to put a shoulder to the church door to pry it open, working around a chain-link fence he put up to stop looters.
Mt. Zion moved to a new facility in 1990 and the old church has been vacant for years, part of a once-thriving community that’s now dotted with empty lots. It was almost demolished a decade ago. Cars still rumble across the interstate overpass next to the building, unaware of its place in history.
All of that’s about to change.
The church’s foundation just got a $500,000 grant from the National Park Service, the latest chunk of well over $1 million in public and private funds it has raised to renovate the building and turn it into a museum. They expect to open for tours in 2020, with multimedia presentations about what happened at Mt. Zion.
It’s also one of several Alabama civil rights sites collectively named to the 2018 World Monuments Watch List, which recognizes some of the most important places in the world. It’s a rare honor — the last edition of the biennial list didn’t include any American sites. That means global attention, connections and help.
“Because it’s a group of sites rather than individual sites, we’re able to harness more resources, and I’m not just talking about money,” said Priscilla Cooper, project manager for the Alabama African-American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium. There are 20 sites in the consortium, including nine in Montgomery. “We hope to give the sites the information and skills to be sustainable beyond the two years we’ll be on the World Monument Fund front page.”
One of the other Montgomery sites on the list, Old Ship AME Zion Church, is across the street from the Equal Justice Initiative’s new memorial to lynching victims. The memorial drew more than 100,000 visitors in its first three months, many of them looking for other historic sites nearby. Visitors to the Rosa Parks Library and Museum jumped by more than 11,000 year-over-year in the same period of time.
As the flood of tourists continue, former Rosa Parks Library and Museum Director Georgette Norman, now the consortium’s project historian, said recognition from the World Monuments Fund is big in ways the city doesn’t yet grasp. “I think Montgomery doesn’t really know, but they will,” Norman said. “Things are happening.”
‘The fall-down church’
Not long ago, Mt. Zion was known by another name.
The church was deteriorating, the roof was caving in, and people started calling it “the fall-down church.” At one point, the church’s board of trustees reluctantly voted to demolish it. Everett remembers his wife crying about the decision and hearing the protests of church members. But their hands were tied. “What do we do? We have no money,” he remembers thinking.
The holes in the roof were so big that Tom Blount saw them from a plane as he flew into Montgomery Regional Airport. He knew the building’s history, so he told his siblings about its condition. The family decided to spend $75,000 from a Central Alabama Community Foundation fund created by their mother, Mary Katherine Archibald Blount, to stabilize the church and repair the roof.
“(Mt. Zion) is as important to the story of the American Civil Rights Movement as the manger is to Christianity,” Tom Blount said. “… In the turbulent times of the 1950s and 60s, our parents taught us to respect all people equally, and we felt that a seed grant to save a building that is iconic in the American story of equality and respect for all was a suitable way to honor them.”
That check kept it away from the wrecking ball 15 years ago. Everett, a former Montgomery Public Schools superintendent, has spent the years since then piecing together grants, donations and elbow grease to keep things on track. Now, things are moving faster.
A halo effect
Down the block, the historic Holt Street Baptist Church is alive with its own renovation after nearly two decades locked and vacant. Its congregation moved to South Court Street in 2001. Now they’re turning the old church, where King and others convened for a mass meeting after the Mt. Zion election, into a museum and memorial. It also plans to open in 2020.
Like Everett, Holt Street Pastor Willie McClung said he hopes the project will have “a halo effect” on the neighborhood as a whole. “I’m absolutely sure that would help. We are closed off and isolated in that spot,” McClung said.
Everett remembers a much different neighborhood when he grew up there, before the interstate — the movie theater, the ice cream parlor, the barbershop. “Under that overpass over there, that’s where my home was,” he said.
Once the old Mt. Zion reopens, he envisions a meeting space inside for seminars about eliminating blight, maybe another historic designation for a nearby art deco building, maybe a restaurant in the empty lot across the street. “Tourists get hungry, and you’re going to have busloads of children coming for field trips here,” Everett said.
Norman said the story of Mt. Zion and other sites in the consortium are crucial to understanding American history, but they’ve long been in danger of being lost because of what happened in the years following the civil rights movement.
“The land really speaks,” Norman said. “These places that did so much for the world have been neglected. People after the movement paid a dear price. Highways came in. They lost many of their members because they were spread out.
“The good news is that we’re now in a position to do some preservation.”
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