A single spot can tell many stories. This week, I stood at the corner of Dexter Avenue and South Decatur Street in downtown Montgomery, Alabama. I’m still absorbing, and trying to make sense of, the various threads that come together at that intersection.
On the southwest corner of Dexter and Decatur sits Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, which, in 1954, welcomed a young Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to his first full time pulpit. A year later, Dr. King helped to organize and lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott from the church’s basement, an event seen as the beginning of the modern civil rights movement in America. The bus stop from which Rosa Parks boarded a municipal bus and refused to relinquish her seat in 1955 is a short, three block, walk down the hill.
The southeast corner of Dexter and Decatur features a granite monument, dedicated in 1942, that marks Dexter Avenue as the route of Jefferson Davis’s inaugural parade in 1861. The first Confederate White House still stands, around the corner from the marker, just to the side of the Alabama Capitol building which served as the capitol of the Confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War.
Across the avenue, on the northeast corner of the intersection of Dexter and Decatur, one encounters a matching granite monument, this one commemorating the 1965 march for voting rights that began at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma and concluded with a large rally on the capitol’s front steps in Montgomery. Just two years prior, Governor George Wallace delivered his (in)famous ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’ speech from the same steps.
The crosswalk connecting the two sides of Dexter Avenue, painted white, is filled with footsteps all pointing in the direction of the capitol building at the top of the hill. Whose footsteps are depicted? The answer may depend on one’s starting point; on which side of the street one opts to stand. Not terribly much separates freedom from oppression, hate from love, degradation from dignity.
One spot, multiple stories, many threads, same hilltop. Just a small piece of what I learned this week in Montgomery.
Parashat Ki Tisa features a similar dynamic. The one spot is Sinai. It’s the place where Moses encounter the burning bush, the locale of the giving of Torah to the people of Israel, the site of the building and worship of the golden calf, and the setting centuries later of the prophet Elijah’s encounter with God. One hilltop holds all of those stories, their contradictions and counter-narratives included. That last Sinai story, Elijah’s moment of discovery, features these famous words: “And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound.”
Mighty winds, earthquakes, fires, and more have crossed the intersection of Dexter and Decatur in downtown Montgomery. What remains for a visitor to ponder is that soft murmuring sound, the still, small voice of divinity that continues to echo. I now understand that I went to Montgomery in search of that voice. A voice that holds many stories – some horrifying and terrifying, some uplifting and inspiring – vibrating for all willing to stop, look, and listen.