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My visit to Montgomery, Alabama

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The epicenter of US Civil Rights Movement

Thirteen days ago I graduated from Infantry School and undertook a bus trip to a neighboring town 80 miles away - to visit Rosa Parks Museum. She is considered the mother of the US Civil Rights Movement, which led to right to vote for African Americans - in 1965 I believe - about 200 years after USA was formed as a democracy. She was arrested for refusing to give up her seat in a bus to a white man — which led to bus boycott.

TUSKEGEE

It was a journey I am not likely to forget for a while. About halfway through the rustic region with poverty ridden bedraggled houses and cotton fields, I was surprised to see a familiar sounding name - the town of Tuskegee. Although the name seemed familiar I could not remember a single event associated with it. Maybe it is where Martin Luther King lived or maybe I read some African American’s autobiographical account (as SAT passage) about his early job searches while I was teaching at C2 Education in Fairfax/Washington DC. However, I was alarmed to discover that the tiny town did not have a single hotel or inn and could not see any taxis. The biggest building was a court house - which I learned later played a role in the Civil Rights Movement.

I had no idea about the city I was going to and was now fearing that even Montgomery may not have hotels or taxis. Thus, I kept calculating other courses of action till I saw a signboard - Hilton Hotel 2 miles ahead!! Of course, I wasn’t going to stay in such an expensive place. I had decided that I would stay in an area in the center of the town - close to where Rosa Parks was thrown out of the bus. I expected the area to be a bedraggled place where lots of poor people lived (like Rosa Parks), which needed to use buses to go to work etc.

The MOTEL

From the Greyhound bus terminal it was a 20-minute taxi car ride to the downtown - and the taxi driver took me to the cheapest hotel possible. I got a military discount on the rate ($39 per night) - seeing my uniform - my first ever stay all by myself in a US hotel (used Youth Hostels till then). Surprisingly, the hotel guy spoke in an Indian accent and within minutes I was talking to him in Hindi. His family members were very glad to see an Indian in US Army uniform and his older brother offered to drop me to the Greyhound bus terminal in his car the next day. We even had lunch at his place, and he packed some Diwali sweets for the journey to Washington DC.

His hotel was just across the street from the State Capitol building. Thus, a very secure location. I roamed around that night and was surprised to see how ornate and sophisticated all the buildings around the area seemed. It seemed inconceivable that racism was practiced here. I saw the church where ML King was a pastor for 6 years and where the bus boycott had been initiated. It was right in front of the main entrance of the State Capitol - halfway in the middle of the street.

Finally, I reached Rosa Parks Museum - built at the spot she was thrown out of the bus. It was within the Troy State University campus - a Greek soldier’s statue was right there on the other side. Surprisingly, many people - white and non-whites came forward, shook my hand, and thanked me serving in the army - while I was roaming thus while in uniform. It seemed strange but felt good.

THE MUSEUM

Next morning I walked the half mile to the museum again - after leaving my bags with the hotel owner. The museum was quite high tech - many TV screens and posters. One had to move from room to room to follow the narration. In the second room there was an actual bus parked at a street intersection. Through its windows (all TV screens) one could see Rosa Parks entering the bus and sitting in the seat just opposite us. The driver could be seen as well as the passengers. Like a giant network of TV screens the whole incident was shown through the bus windows. In the end she was arrested.

In another room I saw a man sitting - it was hard to believe - even from a foot away that it was a statue. Then I saw Mahatma Gandhi’s picture framed on his room’s wall. This person was Martin Luther King, who spearheaded the Civil Rights movement. I was surprised to learn that many white folks had also boycotted the buses in support of African Americans.

The museum keeper disagreed with me that I had seen the body of Rosa Parks in US Capitol Building in Washington DC in 2005. She said that she had seen the body when it was kept at her museum, while I had merely seen her closed casket. I also found that Rosa Parks was born in Tuskegee, but moved to this place while in middle school.

After lunch at the hotel owner’s home - right behind the reception desk - we left for the Greyhound bus terminal to start my 22 hour bus journey to Washington DC.

THE MIGRANT

The hotel owner told me his surprising tale of starting as a bus conductor in UK then after 13 years becoming a bus driver. After 20 years in UK he moved to USA, where due to bad economy green cards could be obtained for $5,000 business investments. Now, after 30 years in the US, he owns a 40-room motel. Interestingly, when he was twenty-five, his grandfather in India asked him where he would like to go to seek his fortune - Africa or Britain. His parents were then in Mozambique. He chose Britain - where anyone could emigrate - without any visa, etc.,- in 1960s. In 1962 India took over Goa, which was under Portuguese rule. Portugal retaliated and asked all Indians to leave Mozambique (under its control), including his parents and brothers. This guy settled them in Britain and moved on to the US.

Thus, ended the memorable journey to Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery Alabama.

Umesh Sharma
Washington D.C.
October 16, 2009