Montgomery’s and Central Alabama’s Role in the Civil Rights Movement
Montgomery has a well-known and painful history of racial discrimination. The Montgomery Streetcar Act of 1906 was one of the nation’s first “Jim Crow” laws. Nearly 50 years later, Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a city bus sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-6 and catapulted the young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into the national spotlight. In 1961, the “Freedom Riders” were beaten by an angry mob upon their arrival at the Montgomery bus terminal. In 1963, newly elected governor George Wallace delivered his infamous “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech from the steps of the State Capital in Montgomery. This speech became the rallying cry of the backlash against the emerging civil rights movement throughout the South. In 1965, hundreds of civil rights marchers in Selma began a march toward Montgomery to protest the killing of a young African-American man by a Sheriff’s deputy. Only six blocks into the march the activists were attacked by state and local law enforcement officers, forcing them back into Selma. In response to the tragic ending of the first march, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a second, larger march from Selma to Montgomery.
More than 50 years after these events, legal segregation is a thing of the past. Residential patterns of segregation continue, however. Montgomery and other small cities and towns throughout central Alabama remain visually segregated today.
The Fight for Fair Housing
Residential segregation in Montgomery, as throughout the county, did not occur in a vacuum It is the direct result of federal, state, and local governmental policies and practices in place for decades. Montgomery’s tortured history of “Jim Crow” segregation is well known. Schools, libraries, public transportation, restaurants, stores, parks, hospitals, and all other institutions and aspects of life were strictly segregated by law until ordered desegregated, one at a time, by Judge Frank Johnson and other federal court judges.
Federal housing policy throughout most of the 20th Century triggered “white flight” to new suburban areas and caused rapid economic decline in remaining urban, predominantly African-American neighborhoods. Beginning in the 1930s, federal policies intentionally segregated public housing residents in low-income, racially concentrated areas. Throughout the South, residents were segregated by law. In 1937, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created to make low-interest loans available to families throughout the country. The FHA adopted racially discriminatory rating practices that favored white loan applicants and rated African-American neighborhoods as “in decline” and not suitable for underwriting. The vast majority of FHA mortgage loans went to borrowers in white communities. Between 1930 and 1950, a period of unprecedented growth, three out of five homes purchased in the U.S. were financed through FHA loans, yet less than two percent of these loans went to non-white home buyers. In addition, racially-restrictive covenants in deeds prevented white property owners from selling their homes to African-Americans.
Also in the 1930s, the National Association of Realtors adopted a code of ethics that explicitly sought to protect white neighborhoods from what it called the “infiltration” of “inharmonious racial groups.” Frederick Babcock, one of the fathers of real estate principals and theory, published a treatise in 1932 holding that race is the predominant factor triggering “neighborhood decline.” He wrote that “usually such declines can be partially avoided by segregation and this device has always been in common usage in the South where white and Negro populations have been separated.” During the same period, insurance and mortgage companies formulated underwriting policies that explicitly excluded homes in African-American neighborhoods.
During the 1940s and 1950s state and federal highway policies throughout the nation uprooted many established African-American communities. Affected families were paid very little for their property and many were compelled to move into public housing. In 1956, while the Montgomery Bus Boycott was in progress, President Eisenhower signed legislation that created the Interstate Highway System.
As was the case with interstates in Birmingham, Nashville, New Orleans, and other cities, I-65 and I-85 were routed to divide and displace vibrant African-American communities in Montgomery. The Alabama state highway director at the time was a high level official of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan and of the White Citizens Council. The routes of both interstate highways in Montgomery were intentionally planned to bisect and destroy neighborhoods where Boycott leaders, including Reverend Ralph Abernathy, lived and where churches were located. An alternate route through mostly vacant land was rejected.
The approved interstate routes displaced nearly 1,000 black families and created a $7 million demand for new residential housing in Montgomery. The new housing demand led developers to create new black subdivisions in Woodcrest and Twin Oaks, and to expand already-existing subdivisions like Sheridan Heights. Local discriminatory practices (and often, harassment and intimidation) kept Montgomery neighborhoods segregated long after “Jim Crow” laws were struck down, and long after racially-restrictive covenants were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1948. Real estate practices such as blockbusting and racial steering ensured that communities remained racially segregated long after the 1968 passage of the federal Fair Housing Act.
Passage of the Act had little immediate effect on the city’s residential patterns. Significant changes occurred beginning in 1970, when Judge Frank Johnson approved what was then called the “nearest school plan.” This plan closed Booker T. Washington High School and placed all residences west of Cleveland Avenue in the G.W. Carver High School district. Many whites, especially those in the Ridgecrest area, fled the west side of the city. The Montgomery Advertiser reported a “drastic turnover of housing” in Ridgecrest in the summer and fall of 1970. David Goldfield reported in his book Black, White, and Southern that eager realtors fueled “white flight” from Ridgecrest by encouraging “panic selling.” These practices frequently caused considerable hardship to working-class white families, who often sold their homes at a loss.
Similar events occurred in other neighborhoods, including Southlawn. Many residents of Southlawn wanted to live in an integrated neighborhood. In 1975 they formed the English Village-Southlawn Community Organization (EVSCO), to “maintain a desirable integrated community and . . . to oppose fright tactics, block-busting, and steering – a practice of pointing one race to a given area while pointing another race away from the same area.” David Erfman, an EVSCO representative, told the city council that realtors were telling blacks that there were no houses in their price range except in Southlawn and English Village, and that, according to a Realtor “they weren’t selling houses in the area to whites.”
The First case filed under the Fair Housing Act in Montgomery was U.S. v. Pelzer Realty Company, Inc., and Williams Thames, which reached the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1973. Pelzer Realty refused to sell lots and houses to two Alabama State employees (both African-American) in Seth Johnson Estates, then an all-white neighborhood. Pelzer offered to build identical houses for the two men at the same price in “any black neighborhood” in town.
While there has been progress in the fight for fair housing in Alabama, there is still much work to be done. Discrimination against minority home seekers persists. CAFHC testing since 1995 has detected ongoing racial discrimination, most often in the form of steering prospective minority home buyers away from predominantly white neighborhoods and toward predominantly African-American neighborhoods. CAFHC is committed to the complete eradication of discriminatory practices throughout central Alabama.