Capitols & churches: Dexter’s goat hill to the steps of history

tsj column writers - capitols and churchesBy Gary Flannagan

If the goats that roamed Andrew Dexter’s pasture in 1845 only knew the events that would follow. Mr. Dexter saw the future and kept his land ready for the new state capital being moved from Tuscaloosa to Montgomery. Built in 1847, burned in 1849 and rebuilt in 1850, Alabama’s State Capitol has a distinctive clock over its front portico that has been marking time ever since it was the first Confederate capitol in 1861. 104 years later, events on its steps would lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

One short block to the west, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was built on the corner of Decatur and Dexter streets. The lot costed $270. The second church on the lot was finished in 1889 and has been instrumental in the U.S. civil rights movement.

In 1954, a new pastor was named. It was from the basement office in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church that he planned the Montgomery Bus Boycott. His birth name was Michael King Jr. At the tender age of five, his father returned from a trip to Germany and renamed himself and his son in honor of German reformer Martin Luther. As a young teenager, Martin Jr. toured Atlanta based churches to sing, became the youngest assistant manager for The Atlanta Journal, renounced the church, and then attended seminary.

Martin Luther King Jr. pastored Dexter Avenue Baptist until 1960. In 1965 he organized the Selma to Montgomery marches to the steps of the Capitol. Peaceful demonstrations led to a walk to the governor’s office and eventually a meeting with then Governor George Wallace. George Wallace would then go on to be the last independent candidate for United States president to actually be awarded electoral votes in the 1968 presidential election.

170 years ago it was just some goats munching on the grass in Andrew Dexter’s pasture. Today, you can park on the street that runs between this Alabama Capitol and The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and contemplate the events that these pastures of plenty have produced. Then wonder, what the next 170 years will bring.

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