Hooray for Small Towns!

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downtown Marion, AL

Driving through Alabama, I came to a renewed appreciation of small towns. So many of the town squares and courthouses reminded me of some of my favorite Iowa small towns. People who live in small towns are often underestimated or overlooked. The history of the civil rights movement has deep roots in rural places.

The March from Selma to Montgomery has its roots in Marion, Alabama. Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot in Marion by a state trooper during a peaceful protest for voter rights on February 18, 1965. This prompted the first attempt at a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Reverend Hosea Williams and John Lewis stepped from the pulpit of Brown Chapel Church and led 600 marchers six blocks to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where the Sheriff and mounted deputies met them with nightsticks and tear gas. Known as “Bloody Sunday” it sparked the expanded civil rights movement in Alabama.

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Marion, AL courthouse

We drove to Marion, Alabama on beautiful country roads. Marion, the college city, is only 28 miles away and is the county seat for Perry County. As a Californian, it is odd to have so many small counties, each with their own courthouse on a square, although it is charming architecturally. We were visiting my friend Dr. John Dorsey in Greensboro, Alabama. We needed an accessible accommodation, so we reserved rooms at the Sleep Inn in Marion. Greensboro is so small the only sleep options are bed and breakfasts and AirBnB.

Marion is also the home of the Marion Military Institute and Judson College, so it is nicknamed, “College City.” The Marion Military Institute has been preparing young men for college and military service for over 165 years. Judson College was originally a “ladies college” or finishing school and has evolved into a liberal arts college. The town of Marion is a classic southern county seat with a courthouse in the middle of a gracious town square. Marion can also claim Coretta Scott King as one of their own.

 

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Awesome coffeehouse The Stable

It was a home game for Alabama so Greensboro had many people driving through from Mobile and stopping at the Pie Lab. My friend Dr. John Dorsey arrived in Greensboro 13 years ago and the downtown was almost empty. He came to serve as a psychiatrist in a rural community and try some ideas about affordable homes with supportive services in a lower cost area. Project Horseshoe Farm has grown and the 15 fellows that are living and working in the community, along with the Rural Studio students created an economic spark and now there is a gym, The Stable coffeehouse, Pie Lab, several retail shops, and more.

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Headquarters of Rural Studio

Hale County, just 10 miles down the road from Greensboro, is the home of Auburn University’s School of Architecture Rural Studio. The students are required to design, fundraise, and build their final project. Many of their projects are in Hale County or in Greensboro. It is world-renowned and a terrific resource in the Black Belt of Alabama.

 

Insight into a Young Dr. King

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We rushed to arrive at the Dexter Parsonage Museum where Dr. Martin and Coretta Scott King lived while he served as pastor of the church. This is where he was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association that organized the boycott and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The tours start on the hour and we knew the last tour would be at 3:00 p.m.

I was not sure what to expect when we entered the first house and into the gift shop where tickets are sold. Our lovely elderly tour guide, Mrs. Margeurite Foley, escorted us out to the front sidewalk and began sharing with us what it was like to live in the neighborhood in the 1950s. We saw where a bomb tore a hole in the porch (and fortunately no one was injured). Then we entered the living room and could easily imagine the family life and entertaining they might have done from their home. Some of the furniture is the same as Dr. King and his young family used.

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We realized when we got to the dining room that Mrs. Foley was a contemporary of the King family and knew him as her pastor. The quality of our questions and discussion changed and it was thrilling. I’ve visited famous people’s homes before—Frank Lloyd Wright for example—and none has moved me in the way this glimpse into the personal life of Martin Luther King Jr. did. Chantay was especially touched to see the photo of Ghandi on his desk in his study.

We drove around the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church on our way to the Parsonage. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his career as a minister and an activist at this church. The meeting to launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott was held in the basement of the church on December 2, 1955.

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church  454 Dexter Avenue (a block west of the State Capitol), Montgomery, AL 36104  www.dexterkingmemorial.org

Dexter Parsonage Museum  303 S. Jackson Street (south of Monroe Street), Montgomery, AL 36104

Tour schedule: On the top of the hour Tuesday through Friday: 10:00a.m., 11:00a.m., 1p.m., 2p.m., 3p.m. and Saturday 10a.m., 11a.m., 12p.m., 1p.m.

The website recommends you contact them and make a reservation for your tour and this made sense once we arrived and realized the tours are powered by volunteers.