Alabama: Montgomery Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The city was the site of the Montgomery bus boycott that propelled Martin Luther King, Jr., into a position of civil rights leadership. It was also the first capital of the Confederate States of America.

Site Office

Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce

41 Commerce Street

P.O. Box 79

Montgomery, AL 36101

ph.: (334) 834-5200

fax: (334) 265-4745

Web site: www.montgomerychamber.org

As the capital of Alabama, Montgomery has been one of the leading cities of the South and southern culture. In its earliest days, Montgomery served as the economic hub of central Alabama’s cotton plantations, and when the institution of slavery was threatened in the mid-nineteenth century, Montgomery’s citizens became some of the most vocal advocates of secession. So great was this opposition that Montgomery served as the capital of the Confederacy in the initial stages of the Civil War. Montgomery remained an important southern city after the war, and with the city’s bus boycott of 1955-1956, it became an early center of the African American Civil Rights movement.

Founding

White immigrants first settled in the region that became Montgomery in the late eighteenth century. Originally they came to trade with Towasa and Ikantchati, two Alibamu villages in the region that were known to the Native Americans as Chunnanugga Chatty (high red bluff). However, the Alibamu evacuated the area following the defeat of the Creeks in 1814 by General Andrew Jackson in what has become known as the Creek War. Subsequently, the Mississippi territorial legislature created Montgomery County in 1816. The county was named after Major Lemuel P. Montgomery, who was killed during the Creek War’s Battle of Horseshoe Bend.

The county quickly became the center of land speculation as two men from the East–General John Scott and Andrew Dexter–and their financial supporters bought up the land in the region. Scott and Dexter both founded towns and competed for settlers until they merged their interests and founded Montgomery on December 3, 1819. The state of Alabama was admitted to the Union just eleven days later. Interestingly, the new town was not named for Lemuel Montgomery like the county but rather for Major General Richard Montgomery, a hero of the Revolutionary War who died in Benedict Arnold’s expedition against Quebec.

In 1820, Montgomery was a struggling town on the frontier, but slaveholding families soon moved into the region and set up cotton plantations. Due to its location and easy access to the Alabama River, Montgomery became a center for cotton distribution. Cotton provided a basis of wealth for the town, and annual per capita income in the 1830’s was slightly more than seven hundred dollars. The United States as a whole never reached such a high amount until after the Civil War.

Between 1830 and 1846, Montgomery’s population grew 260 percent, and the town’s wealth attracted settlers with greater affluence and social standing, such as doctors and lawyers, than did many other communities in Alabama. As a result, Montgomery soon became a political center in the state. By 1846, the town’s political power was so great that the state legislature voted to move the capital from Tuscaloosa to Montgomery.

The state hired George Nichols, a Philadelphia architect, to design a building, and the legislature met for their first session in the new Greek Revival-style capitol on December 6, 1847. In just under thirty years, Montgomery had grown from a small frontier town into one of the most important cities in Alabama.

Civil War

As Montgomery grew in importance, the United States began to polarize along north-south lines over the issues of states’ rights and slavery. As sectional tensions increased, Montgomery, led by the fiery orator William Lowndes Yancey, became a center of secessionist activity.

Following a vote in the state legislature on January 11, 1861, Alabama became the fourth state to secede from the union. The state legislature also issued an invitation to other seceding states for a conference to discuss the creation of a southern government. Six other states–South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas–accepted the invitation, and their representatives began to assemble in Montgomery on February 4, 1861.

The delegates created the government of the Confederate States of America, and they chose Montgomery as the provisional capital of the new government. After some discussion, the delegates also selected Jefferson Davis to be the Confederacy’s president. Davis had been a United States senator from Mississippi and was on his plantation on the Mississippi River when he received word that he had been elected. Davis arrived in Montgomery on February 18, 1861, and he delivered his inaugural address from the balcony of the Exchange Hotel.

Despite its political importance to Alabama and the Confederacy, Montgomery was a relatively small town in 1861. The population was just under nine thousand, but the number of residents doubled almost overnight when the town became the Confederate capital. Overcrowding, coupled with a desire to improve communication with armies in the field, led the Confederate government to move the capital to Richmond, Virginia, in May, 1861. Montgomery only served as the capital for three months, but the town earned its nickname “The Cradle of the Confederacy.”

After the capital moved to Richmond, the citizens of Montgomery remained ardent supporters of the Confederacy until the end of the war. Indeed, Montgomery was one of the last cities in the South to fall. Just before Union troops reached the town, the state legislators emptied the Capitol of all state records and moved to Eufala, Alabama. The citizens also burned 100,000 bales of cotton to keep the precious commodity out of Union hands.

General James Wilson and his raiders reached Montgomery on April 12, 1865, and they quickly occupied the town. Montgomery suffered for its defiance and its role in the creation of the Confederacy. Union soldiers first destroyed railroad tracks and cars and wrecked all the steamboats in the docks. Then they burned several outlying cotton plantations. Montgomery fought hard, but it was crushed along with the rest of the South.

Rebuilding

After the war, much of Montgomery’s wealth had been stripped away. Its farms were gone, and its means of transport were destroyed. The process of reconstruction was slow. By the 1880’s, the railroads were functioning again, and conditions steadily improved. Montgomery was rebuilt more quickly than many other southern cities because of its importance as Alabama’s capital, its geographic location, and the fact that it was near some of the best farmland in the state.

Cotton remained important to Montgomery, but the city also placed more of an emphasis on industry following the Civil War. In 1890, the first large lumber mill went into operation, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, the city hosted textile and garment factories, cotton-processing plants, and fertilizer manufacturers.

The next major step in the town’s development came in 1909 when Orville and Wilbur Wright opened a flight school just outside of Montgomery. They had their first flight there on August 26, 1910. Eventually, this flight school became Maxwell Air Force Base and the United States Air Force’s most important teaching facility. The presence of the school at Maxwell proved to be of major importance to the growth of Montgomery.

The large number of state employees in Alabama’s capital, coupled with the presence of the air base, kept the Great Depression from hitting Montgomery as hard as it did many other southern cities. Maxwell proved even more important to the city during World War II because the base served as a training center for over 100,000 pilots, navigators, and bombardiers by the end of the war. Maxwell played a major part in revitalizing Montgomery, and after the war, Maxwell remained a major training center.

Civil Rights

Montgomery made its most important contribution to twentieth century American history as an early center of the Civil Rights movement. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, an African American seamstress at a local department store, was riding the bus home from work. The segregated bus was crowded, and Parks sat near the front of the black section. As the bus stopped to let on more passengers, the driver, James Blake, ordered Parks to vacate her seat for a boarding white passenger. Parks refused and was arrested for violating the city’s segregation ordinance.

Certainly Parks was not the first African American arrested for refusing to give up a seat on the bus, but Parks served as the perfect focus for opposition to the segregation ordinance. Her husband was a barber at Maxwell. As a federal employee, he was immune to job threats. Additionally, Parks was well known and respected in the black community. E. D. Nixon, Montgomery’s best-known advocate of civil rights, bailed Parks out of jail and encouraged black ministers to lead a boycott of the city buses. They agreed, and the boycott began on December 5, 1955.

Two ministers quickly came to the forefront of the protest movement: Ralph Abernathy, pastor of the largest black congregation in the city at First Baptist Church, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Abernathy initially proposed the creation of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) as an organization to give the boycott structure, and King served as the MIA’s president.

The boycott was well organized. Volunteers with cars ferried people to work, and many simply walked. The leaders also held frequent rallies at churches to keep up spirits, and the black community collectively refused to ride on the city buses. The boycott was so effective the bus company lost approximately six hundred dollars every day.

The boycott lasted 382 days until the Supreme Court overruled Montgomery’s segregation ordinance in Browder v. Gayle and ordered the desegregation of Montgomery’s buses on December 17, 1956. Four days later, King, Abernathy, and Nixon boarded a desegregated bus and ended the boycott.

Soon after the end of the boycott, King left Montgomery for Atlanta, where he took control of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), but he began his civil rights career and formed many of his opinions on nonviolent protest while in Montgomery.

Places to Visit

Many sites within Montgomery commemorate the city’s history. The most prominent landmark is the state capitol at Bainbridge and Dexter. The building is one of the few state capitols which has been selected as a National Historic Landmark, due to Jefferson Davis’s inauguration there.

The First White House of the Confederacy, where Jefferson Davis lived while in Montgomery, is located at 624 Washington Avenue. The building has been preserved and contains many of Davis’s belongings.

Several sites display the city’s civil rights heritage. One of the most important is the Civil Rights Memorial. The outdoor monument located on Washington Avenue features the names of forty people who were killed during the Civil Rights movement.

Visitors to Montgomery can also see Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, King’s first church. A mural of King inside the church features aspects of King’s life from his Montgomery days to his death in Memphis.

For Further Information
  • Garrow, David, ed. The Walking City. New York: Carlson, 1989. Thirteen essays on a variety of aspects of the boycott by participants and historians.
  • King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride Toward Freedom. New York: Harper & Row, 1958. King’s personal account of the bus boycott.
  • Permaloff, Anne, and Carl Grafton. Political Power in Alabama. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995. Alabama politics from 1958 to 1970.
  • Rogers, William, Robert Ward, Leah Atkins, and Wayne Flynt. Alabama: The History of a Deep South State. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994. Contains a great deal about Montgomery’s history as it relates to the rest of the state.
  • Thornton, J. Mills, III. “Challenge and Response in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956.” In From Civil War to Civil Rights, Alabama 1860-1960, edited by Sarah Wiggins. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987. Discusses Montgomery city politics before and during the boycott.
  • Williams, Clanton. “Early Ante-Bellum Montgomery.” Journal of Southern History 7, no. 4 (1941): 495-525. Economic, political, and social events prior to the Civil War.
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