In Montgomery, a City Embedded With Pain, Finding Progress

Driving by the Alabama State Capitol building in Montgomery, Michelle Browder, an African-American activist and founder of the I Am More Than… youth mentorship nonprofit, pointed out a looming bronze statue of Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy. It has a position of prominence right out front, as does a commemorative plaque on the marble steps marking the exact spot where he stood taking his oath of office in 1861. A state holiday recognizes his birthday. Farther down the Capitol lawn, Ms. Browder said, was a similar statue heralding Dr. J. Marion Sims, but I didn’t recognize the name, and she wouldn’t elaborate. “You’re going to have to do your homework on that one,” she said, “because my blood pressure goes up when I talk about him.”

Ms. Browder wore red cat-eye glasses, an Army-green jacket, and a T-shirt bearing the words “Dream Destroyed” and the face of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who began leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 from the basement of a Baptist church just 440 feet from those Capitol steps. The vehicle she was careening through downtown, often parking akimbo on sidewalks or in the middle of the street, was a six-seat electric cart, from which she leads More Than Tours — explorations of a city that has been both the site of systemic oppression of her fellow African-Americans and the birthplace of the civil rights movement.

Within about 10 seconds, she’d risked that blood pressure spike to tell me about Sims. “He’s known as the father of modern gynecology,” she said. “He enslaved black women and he used them as experiments.” Specifically, he visited unimaginable tortures on 12 slave women, without anesthesia, under the belief that black people felt less than whites. “We are starting an initiative,” she said, “because we would like to see the mothers of gynecology erected beside him to give more to the story.” The “we” she refers to is a group she’s organized called Friends of Anarcha, after a woman who endured 30 of Sims’s vaginal surgeries before he declared her a success.

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