I arrived in Montgomery shortly before three in the afternoon.  The air was already hot even though the South had barely stepped into April.  I would be speaking at Huntingdon College later in the evening but had time to do a little exploring. The hotel seemed fairly busy but the streets were oddly quiet.  I walked a few blocks to the post office, mailed some letters that I’d been driving around for days and then noticed a short line of people standing outside a small, two-story building.   I crossed the street and found myself standing in front of the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University.

A foggy morning in Montgomery, Alabama

Glancing at my watch, I’d have just enough time to check it out before needing to get back to the hotel and prepare for the talk I’d be giving later in the evening.  I bought a ticket, rushed inside and welcomed the cool, air-conditioned air against my skin.  But I quickly noticed that the lobby was full of people, people whose skin was much darker than mine.  I immediately felt embarrassed that I had forgotten until that very moment that Rosa Parks’ refusal to vacate her seat for a white passenger on a city bus on December 1, 1955, had happened right here in Montgomery.

In fact, it was the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by a young Martin Luther King, that guided the Montgomery bus boycott which was one of the first but pivotal steps in the Civil Rights Movement.  And I left reminded of the sacrifice, courage and faith of so many men and women who wanted nothing more than to be treated equally.

Fast forward to the next afternoon and about 120 miles up the road, and now I find myself pulling off the interstate and heading to Cullman, Alabama.  Oh, I had heard of Cullman.  I knew its reputation — white, racist, a place where in the dead of night the Ku Klux Klan had once thrived.

More than a month ago though, I had been reminded of this small Alabama town in the red hills north of Birmingham.  I had read an article in the NY Times Magazine about an African-American man named James Fields who was born and raised in Cullman County.  His growing up was, as he called it, “rough and tough.” But now he’s a minister and the Democratic state representative from a county of 81,000 people but claims only 401 African-American voters.

The article, by Nicholas Dawidoff, is brilliantly written, and I encourage you to read it.  Bottom line, personalism trumps racism. How about that?  When people take the time to stopping judging one another based on the color of their skin, they see each other for who they really are.  And apparently that’s why James Fields was elected in a county that overwhelmingly voted against Obama. Because they know the kind of man that James Fields is.

But I kept asking myself, why am I headed to Cullman?  What did I think I was going to find there?

It was another charming Southern town.  Churches, a library, a couple of rather trendy-looking boutiques, an old funeral parlor that now houses an architectural firm, even a coffee house or two. I saw a stylish young woman with long blonde hair.  I saw a lot of white men in pick ups, farmers, I imagine.  I saw two heavy-set women riding along in a beat-up old chevy. Life had already treated them too hard, even I could see that.

I parked my car and walked around a bit, finally stepping into a fabric store to buy a spool thread so I could hem the pair of pants that I’d been holding together with scotch tape.  A friendly couple, need I say “white” couple, welcomed me inside.

After a bit, the man looked at me and said, “Where you from?”

“Nashville,” I answered.

“I knew you was a ferener.”

“How’d you know that?” I smiled.

“Cause I’ve never seen your car here before.  I saw you drive down the street earlier.”

Yeah, you’re right, I thought to myself.  You haven’t seen me before.  But I’ll be back and for some reason that I still don’t fully understand.

A downtown street in Cullman, Alabama

Posted April 9, 2010 at 1:00 pm · 4 comments · Leave a Comment


  1. bermudaonion (Kathy), April 9th, 2010, 1:10 pm

    I've spent many years in Alabama. We lived in Lower Alabama for 12 years and after a while, even I considered anything above Montgomery as "up north."
  2. Leisa Hammett, April 21st, 2010, 9:52 am

    Love the description in this, Susan, and so know that small town ritual of spotting fereners.
  3. Helen Ellis, May 29th, 2010, 7:53 am

    Hi Susan, So nice to meet you at BEA and thanks for the heads-up for this Cullman news from my home state - found the article you mentioned at NYT site: Great to hear my Southern accent echoed in the wilds of Javitz, Helen
  4. Will, August 20th, 2015, 9:52 pm

    Cullman isn't small enough to where we would recognize a new car in town. This story seems a little embellished

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Susan Gregg Gilmore