Different Angels from Montgomery —by Jinny Batterson
Growing up, I wasn’t a huge country music fan. However, like a lot of folks, I developed an infatuation with the John Prine song “Angel from Montgomery” and its signature refrain: “Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery.” Who/what is the angel? There’s some dispute. One of John’s friends insists it was an angel atop the Montgomery Ward building in Chicago, near where John was raised. Another theory is that “angel that flies” refers to a prison pardon communicated from the office of Alabama’s governor at Montgomery. Such pardons for prisoners were/are much hoped for but seldom granted, especially for those on death row. To my knowledge, Prine himself hasn’t identified the angel.
The song stayed in the back of my mind as I planned a “southern swing” in late winter. I had friends in Atlanta, relatives in southern Georgia and northern Florida. Montgomery, where I’d never before visited, was not that far out of the way.
This initial capital of the Confederacy and nexus of civil rights activism a century later had some museums I wanted to see. Near my downtown Montgomery hotel was a small museum to early country music star Hank Williams, who first rose to fame in Montgomery in the late 1930’s. Though I read the historical marker to his memory and looked at the window displays, this was not one of the museums I came for. Rather, I wanted to spend time learning more about Montgomery’s role during the civil rights era—about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the bus boycott that helped usher in a decade of civil rights activism.
In a downtown Montgomery branch of Troy University, a Rosa Parks exhibit reconstructed the events surrounding Ms. Parks’ 1955 arrest and the ensuing bus boycott, complete with a vintage bus. Having a chance to see the actual venue that had produced her and then the year-long boycott brought home her fortitude and resolve, along with the solidarity and resolve of Montgomery’s African-American community.
I’d made advance reservations for another pair of museums and memorials, recently opened by the Equal Justice Initiative. The Legacy Museum and its companion, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (also known as the Lynching Memorial) show the enduring legacy of racial terror that continues to haunt our nation. The Legacy Museum, a block from Hank Williams’ shrine, documents the horrors of the slavery and Jim Crow eras plus some brutal variants that continue to this day. One of the museum’s most graphic exhibits is a set of large jars of soil collected from sites of terror lynchings that occurred from the 1870’s up through 1950, peaking in the 1890’s and early 1900’s.
On a six acre site overlooking Montgomery’s downtown, a companion memorial contains two sets of over 800 steel columns, one for each county in the United States where documented racial terror lynchings took place. One set of columns is shielded by a roof. Viewers of the sloping site are led from an initial area where the columns are at ground level toward a section where they hang suspended, like many of the lynching victims they represent.
Words or photos cannot convey the full impact of experiencing a walk among them. The county where I now live in North Carolina had one lynching memorialized; the county in Maryland where I was raised had two. In all, over 4,000 racial terror lynchings have been documented and verified in 20 states.
A second set of columns lies flat on the ground. Rust-colored, it reminded me of the corrosive myths many of us have told ourselves and each other for years, helping perpetuate race-based fears and hatred, going all the way back to the myth of the “happy darky.” There’s the myth of the predatory black man, with its corresponding myth of helpless womanhood. Especially pernicious and pervasive is the myth of white superiority, abetted by the myth of entirely benign police presence aimed solely at preserving “law and order.”
. The duplicate columns are designed to be brought home to the counties where lynchings occurred, as a way to help acknowledge past injustices and then help heal our enduring racial divides. The columns are way too heavy to fly, but these angels represented in Montgomery need to go home. It’s way past time.
By now, I’ve become an old woman. Not unlike the wife in Prine’s song, I’m named after one of my grandmothers. I may be old, but I can continue to bear witness. Again paraphrasing Prine’s lyrics—to believe in (and work toward) reconciliation is a good way to go.