Knocking out white supremacy in Montgomery, Alabama

A righteous fightback in the spirit of Rosa Parks

Have a seat!

The whole world saw Black people successfully defend themselves against a drunken white mob on Aug. 5 in Montgomery, Alabama. Damien Pickett, a Black co-captain on the city-owned riverboat Harriott II, was attacked for merely trying to dock the vessel.

Pickett had repeatedly asked the owners of a private boat to move out of the designated docking space for the riverboat, whose 227 passengers were waiting to disembark. When Pickett finally started to pull a rope to move the boat, he was attacked by the white gang. The gang also beat a 16-year-old white co-worker of Pickett.

The Justice League then intervened. Black people came to the defense of Damien Pickett and his co-worker.

A 16-year-old Aquaman named Aeren jumped from the riverboat, swam to the dock, and started to throw hands in self-defense. Another member of the Justice League creatively used a folding chair to help pacify members of the mob.

Interestingly, one of the designs for a folding chair was created by the Black inventor Nathaniel Alexander, who was awarded patent number 997,108 in 1911 for it. As Mao Zedong — the leader of the Chinese Revolution — might have said, “Chair to struggle, chair to win!”

Musical superstar Stephanie Mills has offered to pay any legal expenses for these defenders.

All this drama was happening on the same riverfront where tens of thousands of enslaved Africans had been marched off boats to be sold. Montgomery — Alabama’s state capital — was a major center of slave trading.

And it was in Montgomery, Alabama, where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat on Dec. 1, 1955, sparking a 381-day-long bus boycott. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, became president of the Montgomery Improvement Association that helped organize the boycott.

Dr. King’s home was firebombed, and so was the home of another boycott leader, E.D. Nixon. Dr. King was starting a struggle for justice that would end with his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.

Damien Pickett and all those who stood beside him on that Montgomery dock are continuing the work of Rosa Parks and Dr. King.

Slavery by another name

Montgomery was also the first capital of the slave masters’ confederacy. The plantation owners didn’t accept their defeat in the Civil War.

“The Ku Klux Klan was rampant in Alabama,” wrote W.E.B. DuBois in Black Reconstruction in America. “In one district, six churches were burned by incendiaries before the election of 1870. Many schoolhouses were burned. Between 1868 and 1871, there were 371 cases of violence, including 35 murders.”

According to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, at least 340 Black people were lynched in Alabama.

Slavery didn’t end in Alabama in 1865. A convict leasing system supplied coal mines, lumber companies, and plantations with slave labor.

For decades much of the turpentine sold in hardware stores was made in Southern prison camps. The selling of inmates to capitalists — “the vast majority of them being held for trivial misdemeanors,” in the words of author Douglas Blackmon — became an important source of revenue to Alabama state and local governments.

United States Steel exploited hundreds of Black prisoners in its mines around Birmingham, Alabama. In 1911, an explosion in the Banner Mine killed 128 people, including 113 Black prisoners.

Founded with a big stock swindle in 1901 by the biggest U.S. banker, J.P. Morgan, U.S. Steel was the world’s first billion-dollar corporation. Today’s JP Morgan Chase bank is the biggest bank in the United States, with $3.7 trillion in assets. It owes reparations big time.

U.S. Steel used enslaved miners as a club against white and Black members of the United Mine Workers Union.

It wasn’t until June 1, 1928, that 800 Black prisoners marched out of Alabama’s last slave labor mine singing the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” (“Slavery by Another Name, The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” by Douglas A. Blackmon.) Chain gangs on the highways continued to use enslaved prison labor.

Wall Street the real master

Behind the white supremacist regimes in the South were Northern capitalists. To get more subsidies from Congress, Pennsylvania Railroad president Thomas Scott helped push through a rotten deal that settled the disputed 1876 presidential election.

This betrayal of Black people pulled U.S. troops out of the South, guaranteeing the bloody overthrow of the Reconstruction state governments. Decades of hell followed.

A few months later, in 1877, railroad workers revolted against wage cuts. Scott responded by saying, “Put them on a rifle diet.” Dozens of strikers and their supporters were shot down in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Reading, Pennsylvania.

Despite Ku Klux Klan terror, oppression bred resistance. Hosea Hudson and other communists helped organize unions and sharecroppers in Alabama during the 1930s. They demanded the right to vote.

In 1931, Scottsboro, Alabama, authorities sought to frame nine Black teenagers on phony rape charges and send them to the electric chair. Communists helped initiate a worldwide campaign that saved their lives. (“Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression,” by Robin D. G. Kelley.)

Rosa Parks and other activists began a long struggle for voting rights.

In the 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama, became known as “Bombingham.” On Sept. 15, 1963, Klan terrorists bombed the city’s 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four Black girls.

They were Addie Mae Collins, 14; Cynthia Wesley, 14; Carole Robertson, 14; and Carol Denise McNair, 11. Always remember them.

In the spring of 1963, Birmingham’s top cop, Bull Connor, was using police dogs to attack Black people. Hundreds of children were jailed for demanding an end to racial segregation. Dr. King was jailed in Birmingham.

U.S. Steel employed 30,000 workers in 1963 around Birmingham and dominated Alabama’s economy. The then-sixth biggest U.S. corporation could have stopped Bull Connor.

The blue-chip corporation, whose headquarters were in Pittsburgh, refused to do so. The same year George Wallace was inaugurated Alabama’s governor in Montgomery, declaring, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

This didn’t prevent Wallace from coming to Wall Street and selling the state’s bonds. To help pay the interest, Alabama collected a sales tax on bread.

A legacy of racist violence

George Wallace encouraged racist violence wholesale. His state troopers beat and tried to kill future congressperson John Lewis on March 7, 1965, during a march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery for voting rights.

Eighteen days later, a gang of Klansmen murdered Viola Liuzzo, a mother in an Italian American family and civil rights volunteer, after she had dropped off bandleader Billy Eckstein and singer Tony Bennett — who were on the march — at the Montgomery airport. One of her murderers was Gary T. Rowe, who was on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s payroll.

These crimes shocked the world and helped pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and four others on the high court threw out most of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. We have to fight to put it back.

Gary T. Rowe was never convicted for his crimes. But the FBI framed Viola Liuzzo’s husband, Anthony Liuzzo, Business Agent of Teamsters Local 247 in Detroit, and had him imprisoned.

Since then, thousands of Alabama steelworkers have lost their jobs. Deindustrialization came to both the steel center of Birmingham and hundreds of closed Southern textile mills. Racism doesn’t save jobs.

Montgomery, which had been a railroad center, also suffered job losses. The shops of the Western Railroad of Alabama were closed.

In the 1950s, around 20 passenger trains stopped daily in Montgomery. E.D. Nixon helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott while working as a Pullman porter, traveling between Montgomery and Chicago three times a week.

But today, no Amtrak trains serve Montgomery, a state capital.

The military-industrial complex also helped promote white supremacy. Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun — who used slave labor to build Hitler’s V-2 rockets — led NASA’s efforts to develop missiles at its Huntsville, Alabama, complex.

Montgomery is home to the Maxwell Air Force Base, which includes Air University and the Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education. General LeMay wanted to launch a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union and became George Wallace’s running mate in his fascist 1968 presidential campaign.

Centuries of oppression make the events on Montgomery’s riverfront all the more significant. As Frederick Douglass said, without struggle, there is no progress.

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