Montgomery: History from civil rights to Nat King Cole

Montgomery History Civil Rights Memorial

The Civil Rights Memorial stands as a constant reminder of a critical chapter in Montgomery history. (Gannett File)

DealChicken spends a lot of time hunting and pecking around Montgomery in search of the best daily deals.  So it’s no surprise in a city with deep historic roots he’s come across his share of Montgomery history and trivia. Here’s a bit of local lore and facts that even your favorite fine-feathered know-it-all didn’t know until recently.

Being a wedding organist involves a lot more than knowing "The Wedding March." So when the Montgomery Chapter of the American Guild of Organists was chosen by The American Organist magazine to complete a survey designed to explore organists' wedding policies and practices, they were happy to address the key areas of note. Among other things, these Montgomery musicians learned that 35% expect payment at the wedding or right after the ceremony, and that the most often played recessional piece is Handel's "Allegro Maestoso" (aka, "Hornpipe from Water Music"). Shockingly, Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” didn’t make the list.

It is certainly no secret that Montgomery played a major role in the civil rights movement, a fact which the Civil Rights Memorial at Washington Avenue and Hull Street is proud to recognize. The memorial depicts some of the most notable events that took place in Montgomery during mid-20th century, including a list of 40 names of people who gave their lives fighting for equality. But did you know that famous architect Maya Lin, who also designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is credited with designing the Montgomery Memorial as well?

To Montgomery or not to Montgomery? That is the question. But for people who appreciate the works of William Shakespeare, the answer is definitely "to Montgomery." In fact, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery attracts more than 300,000 bard devotees a year! Originally taking place in a small theater in an un-air-conditioned school gym, the festival has since blossomed to the point that it is now held in the magnificent Carolyn Blount Theatre complex, which took more than one million bricks to build.

A slew of unforgettable people have been born in Montgomery. But one of the most unforgettable is Nathaniel Adams Coles, known by most as Nat King Cole. One person who will certainly never forget the jazz legend is the Canadian record collector who accidentally stumbled onto the one and only recorded version of Nat King Cole singing at Carnegie Hall. The recording had been labeled as “Armed Forces Radio Service,” but one listen and the collector knew he had a found a treasure. The recording has since been authenticated by several experts. Talk about a lucky find!

Martin Luther King Jr. was only 25 years old when he became the pastor of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954. He served as pastor of the church for the next 16 years—his only full-time position as pastor at any church. This historical site, which is considered to be a national landmark, contains a colossal 10-foot-by-47-foot mural depicting Dr. King’s peaceful crusade for civil rights.

The 1990 movie “The Long Walk Home” starring Whoopie Goldberg and Sissy Spacek was both set and filmed in Montgomery. The film follows the stories of two women in the midst of the Montgomery bus boycott, which is plenty interesting on its own. But check out this little tidbit: One of the buses that is seen in the film is the actual bus in which the famous Rosa Parks protest occurred. You can even see that the bus still has its original number in place: #2857.

Think old Coca-Cola signs, discarded roofing materials and beat-up license plates can’t constitute art? Think again, oh cynical one. Alabama native and artist William Christenberry collects just these types of artifacts from Alabama’s roadsides and transforms them into artistic representations of his childhood memories. He is most known for his "walls," like the "Alabama Wall (Variant)" that was commissioned by the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in 1992, where its funky visual style is still on display today.

All of America was hit hard by the Great Depression, and Montgomery was no exception. Although its abundance of state workers kept the capital city from suffering as much as some other Alabama cities, it was certainly not immune, as these random statistics show: In 1930, the families of Montgomery had 11,607 telephones. Three years later, that figure was down to 9,899. And what would you pay for a 5-pound bag of sugar in Montgomery in 1934? A whopping 25 cents! That may not seem like much now, but back then, it was a small fortune.

Here’s something wild: Did you know that the Montgomery Zoo—you know, that 40-acre spread featuring some of the world’s most exotic animals?—actually started out as a small children’s petting zoo in a local park? The biggest attractions back then were a couple of alligators and a small merry-go-round. Things sure have changed! Now it’s a whole different animal.

The Montgomery Biscuits are not about to let anyone eat them for breakfast. They may be a minor league baseball team, but they’ve got major league heart. As a Tampa Rays affiliate, the Biscuits have kept Montgomery fans in the stands since they formed in 1980. But do you know how they got their delectable name? It was actually chosen out of 3,000 entries as the winner of a “name the team” contest. Who knows what would be fired into the crowd if a different name had won?

Mastered Montgomery history? Find out some fun facts about Shreveport, LA.