Despite Rapid Growth In Civil Rights Tourism, Montgomery Remains Firmly In The Grip Of Racist White Men

In a tragic vote yesterday, the City Council in Montgomery, Alabama failed to pass an ordinance that would have required the use of face masks in public. This vote came after an impassioned plea from local doctors:

Jackson Hospital pulmonologist William Saliski cleared his throat as he started describing the dire situation created by the coronavirus pandemic in Montgomery to its City Council before they voted on a mandatory mask ordinance. “It’s been a long day, I apologize,” he said.

“The units are full with critically-ill COVID patients,” Saliski said. About 90% of them are Black. He said hospitals are able to manage for now, but it’s not sustainable. “This mask slows that down, 95% protection from something as easy as cloth. … If this continues the way it’s going, we will be overrun.”

More doctors followed him to the microphone, describing the dead being carried out within 30 minutes of each other, and doctors being disturbed when people on the street ask them if the media is lying about the pandemic as part of a political ploy.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Note that Salisky said that units at the hospital are full with critically ill patients. But also note especially that the newspaper adds that he said 90% of the patients are black. Finally, he said that without intervention, the hospital certainly will be overrun.

The intervention measure proposed is simple and direct. Salisky claimed 95% reduction in transmission with a mask. I’m not so sure on that number, but it is becoming increasingly clear that masks, especially when coupled with social distancing, make a huge difference in reducing transmission.

We need to set the stage properly before getting to the details of the council’s vote in order to fully appreciate it.

Montgomery has a truly sordid past. As the Equal Justice Initiative has noted, Montgomery was Alabama’s center for the slave trade. EJI erected this plaque on Commerce Street in downtown Montgomery:

That’s right. Humans were literally warehoused between auction dates in Montgomery. In a bit of rare social justice, that building, 122 Commerce Street, is now one of several Equal Justice Initiative facilities in Montgomery:

I have these photos because, as I mentioned previously, I had the opportunity in February to travel to Montgomery with a busload of people from here in the Gainesville area. We visited two EJI facilities, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (seen in the featured image for this post) and the Legacy Museum. We also made the approximately one hour bus trip to Selma, where we experienced the Footprints to Freedom Tour which included stops at the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, the Slavery and Civil Rights Museum and a walk across the Edmund Pettis Bridge.

It turns out we were far from alone in making this trip. In November of 2018, the Montgomery Advertiser noted a significant uptick in visits to Montgomery and traced them directly to the opening of the National Memorial and Legacy Museum that April:

Over 250,000 people have visited the Equal Justice Initiative’s downtown museum and memorial to lynching victims since the sites opened in April. More than that, the burst of international attention that came with those sites has turned the city into a destination, instead of a stop on the way to something else. That’s led more people to discover the city’s other historic sites and attractions, from Martin Luther King Jr.’s church, to the site where Rosa Parks boarded the bus.


“EJI has put Montgomery on the world’s radar,” he said. “I think Montgomery is in the best position for tourism appeal than it has ever been.”

Now, they’re voting with dollars.

Hotel room stays in Montgomery inched up by about 5,500 in 2017, according to state figures. This year they’re up 97,579 through October, according to the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Note the mention of Rosa Parks as another part of Montgomery’s role in civil rights history.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott, from December, 1955 to December, 1956 marked Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s rise to national attention. This adds significantly to the historic legacy of Montgomery and civil rights.

It should also be noted that Montgomery’s demographics are 61% black and only 33% white.

So with this rich history of civil rights activism, burgeoning civil rights tourism and a population 61% black, surely Montgomery’s City Council would vote for an ordinance that would slow down a disease where one doctor characterized those hospitalized as 90% black, wouldn’t they?

Not so fast. This is, after all, still Alabama. Here’s a link to the current Montgomery City Council. In a city that has 61% black citizens and only 33% white, the City Council has five white men, three black men and one black woman. Hardly representative.

Returning to the Advertiser story on last night’s vote:

After they spoke, and before the council voted on a proposal by Councilman C.C. Calhoun to mandate mask-wearing in public in Montgomery, Councilman Brantley Lyons questioned whether masks and six-foot distancing really helps. They do, the doctors replied. Lyons was unmoved. “At the end of the day, if an illness or a pandemic comes through we do not throw our constitutional rights out the window,” Lyons said.

From the crowd, doctors called for him to visit the hospital sometime.

Instead, the council killed the ordinance after it failed to pass in a 4-4 tie, mostly along racial lines, with Councilman Tracy Larkin absent. Councilman Clay McInnis voted with three Black council members — Calhoun, Oronde Mitchell and Audrey Graham — in favor of the ordinance. Lyons, Charles Jinright, Richard Bollinger and Glen Pruitt voted against it.

Only one white man voted for the ordinance. Sadly, one of the black men on the council was absent. I haven’t seen anywhere whether there might be an attempt at a new vote with all members present, since if no members change their vote, it would have a good chance at passage.

But note especially the behavior of Brantley Lyons. He asked the doctors whether it is true the masks and distancing would help prevent spread of the disease. Even though the doctors assured him it was true, Lyons trotted out the trope that the frothy right has been spewing all through the pandemic. Trying to claim that an ordinance mandating masks somehow would “throw our constitutional rights out the window” is the same sort of stupid rhetoric that racist conservative white people have spewed for generations whenever blacks sought equal protection under the law. And that circles back perfectly on the first quote from this article, where the doctors described being upset when the public approaches them to ask if the media is lying about the pandemic as part of a political ploy.

We know exactly where the real political ploy is coming from. Donald Trump is saying the quiet part out loud to fan the flames of racism in our country and he is directly responsible for these ideas spreading rapidly through people who listen to OAN and Fox News creating the narrative that the pandemic is fake. There also is no doubt that there is a huge component of racism in this entire process. Trump doesn’t hide his, but two-bit worthless politicans like Brantley Lyons happily spew this bunk without regard to the real and ongoing danger to the black citizens of Montgomery. You can rest assured that if this disease primarily attacked old white men, those not wearing masks would risk being shot on sight.



26 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    Black people in Montgomery shouldn’t have to put up with that kind of government. (Neither should anyone else.) I hope they vote those white men out.

  2. PhoneInducedPinkEye says:

    This question might not be something you know, but maybe someone does. How does the city council end up minority black in a town that is majority poc? Voter suppression?

    I drove through the south on the way to Florida a few years ago, mostly concerned with leaving asap. Civil rights tour sounds worth doing, slowly and carefully.

      • PhoneInducedPinkEye says:

        That is probably an even better question, I hereby adopt it as the question in the first comment.

    • egon says:

      oof, I’ve got my intuitions but without empirical evidence or research will withhold from making any conclusions. I’m from southern Alabama (Mobile-ish area) so know the dynamics there better than Montgomery, but living near the capital now.

      But one could assume “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” likely has something to do with this disparity.

      Just remember, folks where concerned in THE EARLY oughts that Georgia’s state flag still had the starts and bars on it. So what did the state do? Vox said it best: “Georgia replaced a Confederate-themed flag with another Confederate-themed flag.” [1] These people aren’t fools and Neil Diamond wasn’t wrong.


  3. omphaloscepsis says:

    On the brighter side, the mayor of Montgomery issued an executive order mandating masks.

    From the Montgomery Advertiser:

    “Mayor Steven Reed issued an executive order to mandate masks in Montgomery, bypassing a tied City Council vote that failed to do the same less than 24 hours prior.

    Reed announced the order in a news conference at City Hall on Wednesday afternoon. It goes into effect at 5 p.m. Friday and is intended to be temporary until the next council meeting for council members to consider another ordinance, Reed said.”

    • Jim White says:

      Thanks so much for this very encouraging update. I’m glad the mayor took action and glad that there’s hope for the council try again.

  4. egon says:

    As was noted, Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed issued an executive order concerning wearing face mask in public. [1]

    Early this year I moved from Macon Ga back to my home state of Alabama to finish undergrad. Currently living 25 minutes east of Montgomery. One of my neighbors literally just retired as an OB GYN Nurse working in Montgomery. She said, some three weeks ago, the hospitals where nearly full and sending patients to Birmingham. [2]

    Been tracking the national news waiting to see when this crisis would be covered. It’s been covered decently by local TV and ‘’ ( is another adequate site for ‘bama news).

    Here’s a side bar with an anecdotal story: my ex-wife is a nurse practitioner in the southern part of the state (the beaches…) and has witnessed non-reporting of COVID-19 cases when the patient is from out of state. the logic is, ‘why should a person not from ‘bama be on our numbers.’ back to your regular broadcast.

    Living in ‘The South’ during the time of COVID-19 has been tiresome. Physical distancing has been nonexistent, and mask wearing is spotty. One could conclude the cavalier attitude is connected with the occupant of the White House and their messaging. Full disclosure tho, I don’t wear a mask as I am a 31 year old male and invincible but one of my majors is mathematics and comprehend exponential growth….


    (note the date below)

      • egon says:

        yes, that was a failed attempt at humor.

        luckily I have the luxury of not having a job, thanks to the Post 9/11 GI Bill. Given this, have self isolated since March. As a young recluse I’ve rejoiced in society’s acceptance of my habits.

        • bmaz says:

          Lol. But welcome egon, keep joining in, and keep the sense of humor, it is needed these days. Also congrats on finishing your degree, that is always a good thing.

    • Behr says:

      One important reason for wearing a mask is not to protect yourself, but to protect others.

      Do me a favor: look up pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19.

      In the meantime, do your part as a contributing member of society and please wear a mask.

      Note – edited reply after reading your response to John B.

  5. Jenny says:

    Thanks Jim good post.
    It is perplexing to me why people are adverse to wearing a mask during a pandemic. Children have been taught to cough into their elbows, now we need to teach some adults to wear a mask.

    Even in my family there was an exchange about masks that went like this:

    Statement: I will not wear a face mask. Masks do not work. They don’t protect.
    Reply: Yes, that is why surgeons do not wear face masks in surgery.

    • P J Evans says:

      I’ve seen a number of people with a mask on, but not actually wearing it: it was below their nose. (And in one case, pulled down below their chin. In a drugstore.)

    • Tom says:

      I don’t see why Trump doesn’t try to cash in a little by producing his own MAGA themed face masks. I realize it goes against the “real men don’t wear masks” schtick he’s trying to put across, but if even a few of his cultees bought them and wore them it would be helpful.

      I’ve started to see a few patterned masks on sale but I’m surprised no-one has brought out any Marvel or DC Comics themed face wear. I’m sure there would be young guys keen to wear a mask if it had a big Joker grin stamped on it, or was printed up to look like Spiderman’s costume. Catwoman, Wonder Woman, and other female characters could be an option as well. I think there are real possibilities for face masks as a fashion accessory, or as a way of sending a message or identifying oneself.

      I have a flesh-toned cloth mask and I’m tempted to print “I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream!” on the front of it (it’s the title of a short story by the late Harlan Ellison), but I’m afraid it might scare children.

        • vvv says:

          My bro’s girlfriend sews and bestowed some masks on us. My mother has a few that are, for masks, quite attractive. Mine? Mine is made from a black velvet Crown Royal bag.

          • P J Evans says:

            I had some fat quarters I’d bought a few years back, and used a couple of them. Donated all the rest to a couple of quilters who will put them to good use. (It was nearly five yards, total.)

        • Tom says:

          Thanks for the link, PJ. I see the variety of patterns available and am surprised there are no camouflage ones for the hunting & fishing crowd.

  6. lika2know says:

    There has been quite a robust “civil rights tourism” circuit in Montgomery for several years now. The new Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace & Justice (aka Lynching Memorial) only add to the attractions. When I lived there four years ago, there was always a stream of Brits coming through on a Birmingham-Selma-Montgomery circuit and if we stayed, we were thinking of doing AirBnB in our spare room.

    The downtown was slowly recovering from decades of suburban flight. I lived in the oldest neighborhood in the city, just a couple blocks from where the Lynching memorial is now and close to where the Selma-to-Montgomery march re-enactment traveled. The area which used to be houses was emptied as folks tried to guess where the new highway would go (I-85 starts there at I-65). Property was bought on speculation and houses razed. For decades, the area where the memorial is now was block after block of steps leading nowhere and chimneys attached to nothing, which of course meant no services — no buses, no grocery, no restaurants. I hope that the downtown revitalization continues and folks start rebuilding near the Federal courthouse, and Rosa Parks Museum, and Cottage Hill.

  7. dakine01 says:

    I lived in Montgomery for almost a year in ’97/’98. It really was & is a fascinating city. For example, the “First White House of the Confederacy” resides at the bottom of a small hill. A couple of blocks up that hill is the Southern Poverty Law Center with the Civil Rights Martyrs sculpture in front. The sculpture is the same black granite as the Vietnam Memorial & it is the same artist.

    • posaune says:

      Thanks for your comment, dakine. Your description of the terrain, with the confederate white house at the low end of the slope; the granite sculpture above it in elevation and the EJI memorial at the top of the hill renders the spatial and moral relationships perfectly. How powerful! This is what good design does. Not surprised it is Maya Lin.

  8. Wm. Boyce says:

    I’m waiting for a local politician to declare their “right to be stupid under the First Amendment.”
    Seems to be pretty widely practiced in some places.

  9. 4jkb4ia says:

    Awareness that the pandemic is real in one’s community can be accomplished by very simple things such as a Heroes of Covid-19 section which the Jewish Light ran in which health care professionals talked matter-of-factly about the cases that they had seen and how all the hospitals worked together to get them the equipment they needed. St. Louis has so many hospitals I don’t think they are in danger of being overrun. Per Missouri Department of Health St. Louis County had 5474 cases and 541 deaths and St. Louis City had 2086 cases and 181 deaths. In other words the St. Louis metropolitan area almost certainly has about as many deaths as New York City had on one particularly bad day. Cases for the whole state are 35% black.

  10. 4jkb4ia says:

    I am not sure what the 1st Amendment has to do with wearing a mask or government public health responsibilities. Arlie Hochschild told the NYT about a month ago that the idea that this kind of thing is not needed for hardy people like us has been circulating for years, and that would mean that the Those People that we aren’t aren’t defined by race. It would indicate Democratic demographic groups in general.

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