“But if we would have white supremacy, we must establish it by law — not by force or fraud.”
— John B. Knox, chairman of the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901.
Perched atop Goat Hill in Montgomery, the Alabama capitol is the sort of backdrop local TV news stations use for political stories when they don’t have a better visual. It’s cut from a Greek Revival template, with a dome and the Corinthian columns, and not all that distinct from other state capitols. But as Alabama government buildings go, it’s the showpiece. Even the traffic lights out front are hung awkwardly at the sides of the road as to not obstruct the view coming up Dexter Avenue.
Let’s take a walk around. But don’t touch anything. Messing with the stuff here can get you into trouble.
Except for the yearly State of the State addresses, the Alabama Legislature doesn’t meet here anymore. They get together in a repurposed Department of Transportation building across the street. They moved over there in the 1980s — temporarily — and then never came back. But for the governor’s suite and a few other state offices, the capitol is essentially a museum.
Which isn’t to say it’s unimportant.
It’s here that Alabama governors take their oaths of office. It’s here that George Wallace declared “Segregation forever!” It’s here that Black civil rights activists, including John Lewis, finished their march from Selma. It’s here that Martin Luther King Jr. demanded America fulfill its obligation to secure voting rights for all.
And it’s here that tourists, not to mention thousands of schoolchildren on field trips each year, come to see what Alabama is about.
They’d be forgiven for thinking it’s mostly about the Confederacy.
This was the Confederacy’s first capital, a distinction Montgomery held for only three months, but a fact literally written in stone throughout the grounds.
The first visage you see while ascending the marble steps out front is not that of King or even Wallace, but of a man from Mississippi.
This is where Jefferson Davis took the oath as the first and only Confederate president, and there’s a little brass star to mark the spot. To the left of the steps is the statue of Davis, a cloak over his shoulders, his hands resting on a slab of pink granite, donated by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1940.