The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America

By Richard Lischer | Go to book overview
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3
Dexter Avenue
and "The Daybreak
of Freedom"

THE old city of Montgomery, Alabama, is laid out like a Lionel Train model village. Its squares are bordered by two‐ storied antebellum residences, some of which have been converted to boutiques and dentists' offices, by Queen Anne doll houses that were exercises in nostalgia when they were built, and by granite and marble government buildings. The chief building is the Alabama State Capitol. Its great white dome is topped by three flags: the Stars and Stripes, the Alabama state flag, and the Confederate flag. A statue of Jefferson Davis stands sentry at the entrance. The trees along the squares are mostly magnolia and cypress; one hotel maintains a few palm trees. Montgomery lies on the Alabama River at the edge of a swamp that menacingly threatens to engulf the entire Lionel village in Spanish moss.

The renovations done to the old city are so perfect and explicit that they fail to convince: Montgomery is not a "New South" city and never was. In the 1950s the city's seventy thousand whites and fifty thousand blacks were locked in an uneasy social and economic embrace. Four years before the young Reverend Martin Luther King and his wife arrived, the median annual income for Montgomery's Negroes was $970. Sixty-three percent of the Negro women were domestics, and 48 percent of the men were laborers or domestics. Despite the enforced intimacy of the races, a rigid caste system, buttressed by dozens of local statutes, forbade blacks and whites to acknowledge the life they in fact held in common. A local statute went so far as to bar whites and blacks from playing cards, dice,

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