The Duty of Memory

MONTGOMERY, Ala., May 20 (UPI) — For the civil rights movement it is a city associated with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. For the South it represents Jefferson Davis and the first capital of the Confederacy. For military folks it is Maxwell Air Force Base and Air University. The capital of Alabama is a city whose history is as complex and conflicting as the competing forces in it.

I was met at the Birmingham airport late Sunday night, 90 miles from Montgomery, by Lt. Col. El Hadji Ibrahima Diene of the Senegal air force and Gene Smith of the Defense Intelligence Agency, both students at the Air War College and stellar gentlemen. They had been sent to be my minders for the 56th National Security Forum by Evelyn Early, the State Department representative at the Air War College, a fluent Arabic speaker and old friend from Prague. I was assigned to seminar no. 9.

The car ride down to Montgomery was a strong mix of brainstorming and passion for global security issues. The topics moved from AFRICOM to pirating; from North African security to stability in Iraq; and the role of Islam, Christianity and religion for future political stability. Of particular focus was the United States’ vision for Africa.

I had been to Montgomery 10 years ago on my way back from New Orleans. At the time I had seen the Rosa Parks Museum, the first Baptist church on Dexter Street where King preached and the home of Jefferson Davis. I had the best hotdog and hamburger in the world at Chris’s — also on Dexter. I insisted that Diene and Smith join me there this time as well. The food was still darn good.

As an Army brat and upstate New Yorker, I have always had strong feelings coming down South. I have served with many Southerners while on duty. They are great gentlemen and women. Many of my fraternity brothers are from the South. But there is still a lingering feeling for me about tolerance and openness down South.

On the Monday morning before the National Security Forum began, Diene and Smith took me around Montgomery. The historical signs about the slave trade were a bit too clinical for me. It took five passers-by to tell me where Rosa Parks — who had refused to give up her seat to a white person in 1955 and sparked the civil rights movement — got on the bus. There is a plaque where she got off, but not where she go on. On the same sign is a tribute to Hank Williams with a note “continued on the other side” that is about Parks. It is all a bit odd.

At 177 Lee Street, two blocks from where Parks got off the bus — crossing Dexter — is Wilson & Thomas Barber & Beauty Shop. Two octogenarians, Woodrow Wilson and Walter Thomas, have been in the same location since 1951 and 1958 respectively. They are zeitgeist — living history — and witnessed and participated in the moving events of the civil rights era.

Woodrow Wilson, “like the President,” told me about the “whites only” days. He had set up his barbershop in 1951. “I picked up people in my car during the bus boycott and drove them around town. … I was threatened, but not in a major way. In fact, the policeman from then and me are now friends.” I asked about Obama. “I didn’t think I would see it in my lifetime. At first I was for Hillary. President Clinton did a lot for my people. But when I heard Senator Obama, I believed.”

Walter Thomas served in Korea. He was stationed in Kasan as a barber. He joined Woodrow Wilson in his Lee Street barbershop in 1958.

I asked what it was like going from a mostly integrated military back to city life in the Deep South. “I came back to go to school. I had the GI Bill. I wanted to go home. I mean Montgomery is my home. … The military taught me how to live with people — even when you don’t get along with them.

“I remember the first time I saw blacks and whites marching together. It was then I began to believe things could change.” And Obama? “I had a white customer a year ago who works for the FBI. He said Obama will win. I didn’t believe it. I thought it would be Hillary Clinton. I was very proud in the end.”

Diene and Smith also had a brief chat with Wilson and Thomas. They were duly impressed. They were, like me, also moved.

As I leave Montgomery for Birmingham to meet Ambassador Bill Cabaniss, a proud Alabaman and Prague friend, I am impressed with the officers and civilians I have met at the NSF.

Halfway through the 56th National Security Forum, America’s ability to stay the course is a subject of intense discussion.

In this city of incredible contradictions — I have been treated very well by all indeed — a chat with two black gentlemen who were witness to a despicable act in history was an especially powerful “devoir de memoire” — a duty of memory — in which history and security intertwine.

(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A founding trustee of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council and a member of the National Advisory Board of the U.S. Democratic Party, he has advised many political candidates.)