Tag Archives: history

Emory McCord Folmar (1930-2011)

“Perhaps the best way of encapsulating the gist of an epoch is to focus not on the explicit features that define its social and ideological edifices, but on the disavowed ghosts that haunt it, dwelling in a mysterious region of nonexistent entities which nonetheless persist, continuing to exert their efficacy.” – Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute

It’s difficult to write obituaries of people like Jesse Helms or Mayor Joe Smitherman of Selma. You’re talking about men who ended up on the wrong side of history. You’re talking about people who, whether their crimes were legal or moral (or both), or even forgivable, still leave this world with families that care about them. And even the most objectionable of that bad lot, say, Richard Nixon or George Wallace, still were, beneath the accumulated iconography, men who went into public service with an idea of improving their communities and working on behalf of those they saw as their constituencies.

This has always been true for the humble writer of the villain’s obituary, juggling historical perspective, balancing the good deeds with various atrocities, writing with an honest voice without seeming to be ghoulishly dancing on the graves of the recently deceased. That’s why some batch of scribes is going to soon have to parse through the reprehensible career of a highly-respected war criminal like Henry Kissinger. To have any ethics at all, we’ve got to make judgments about these fallible (and usually proud) humans.

This is especially dicey when you’re dealing with people who were famous back before social attitudes underwent some kind of massive transformation. There can be all sorts of quibbles with understanding someone’s life “within the proper context.”

Allen Tullos, in his book Alabama Getaway, writes about the ghost of George Wallace, making extended reference to the brilliant work of the Drive-By Truckers. Tullos writes about the Truckers’ song, “Wallace,” which posits that even if Wallace’s vile racism wasn’t genuine, pandering to evil in order to get votes is still sufficient to earn a person eternal damnation.

“Concerning Emory Folmar, the mayor of Montgomery, there is no middle ground. To a substantial majority of Montgomerians, he is the greatest thing ever to happen to their city. He attracts from them a Wallace-like loyalty. Then there is the vocal minority who see Emory Folmar as a power-hungry racist who would turn Montgomery into a veritable police state.” — Alabama Magazine, December 1980

Emory Folmar was a heavily decorated Korean War vet. He was a millionaire who made his fortune in construction. He built shopping centers. And he was mayor of Montgomery from 1977 until 1999.

He was a legendary hard worker. He was also no friend to free thinkers, nor to Montgomery’s African-American community. He was a constant nemesis of the city’s black leaders, notably Joe Reed, who was then on the city council, and was (and is still) the head of the Alabama Democratic Conference, the black wing of the state’s Democratic party.

Media accounts of Folmar’s tenure as mayor have mostly focused on his gruff personality and his incredible work ethic. He was a stickler for details and would often accompany city employees on their most routine tasks. And certainly there’s a double edge to the idea that he’d ride along with garbage crews, making sure they were picking up trash properly. On the one hand, he wanted the citizens of Montgomery to be receiving top-tier service from their tax dollars. On the other hand, there’s a certain point where “salt of the Earth” becomes Helicopter Boss.

Folmar and Race

It was 1982. No sitting president had been to Montgomery since Jefferson Davis. But Folmar was a Republican back before that was Alabama’s dominant political orthodoxy. So when Folmar backed Reagan in 1980, the Gipper repaid the favor by coming to Alabama and addressing the sitting Alabama Legislature. Rep. Alvin Holmes, who still represents Montgomery at the Statehouse, walked out of Reagan’s speech. The event seems like a microcosm of where Montgomery was in terms of racial harmony.

Still, Folmar valued law and order more than he valued white supremacy. The Mayor was on the scene in 1979 to order the arrest of nearly 200 Klansmen as they marched from Selma into the city limits without a permit. News reports from the time highlight the fact that the mayor, sporting his pistol, stood alongside the police in their riot gear.

Nonetheless, the city under Folmar remained extremely racially polarized, as noted by some electoral reporting in the Times Daily on Oct. 12, 1983:

“Supported by an organization of more than 3,000 campaign workers, Mayor Emory Folmar trounced challenger Franklin James Tuesday in an election that revealed a clear division between white and black voters.”

Folmar won that election by a count of 32,734 to 23,149 (58 percent to 41 percent), but it was a high-profile battle. Nearly 50 percent of the registered voters in the city voted.

Montgomery was then 40 percent black, but, according to the article, Folmar barely campaigned in the city’s black districts. Still, he somehow got 20 percent of the city’s black vote. The Times Daily article waits to the end to explicitly state the subtext of the campaign:

“While Folmar denied he was making an issue of race, his campaign literature and his radio ads repeatedly asserted that James would allow “radicals” to run the city. Those “radical forces” he named – city councilmen Donald Watkins and Joe Reed and state Rep. Alvin Holmes – are black.”

And it shouldn’t be forgotten that it was under Folmar that Montgomery experienced the notorious “Todd Road Incident.” An excellent 30-minute documentary about the incident can be seen here, but this racially-charged tragedy will forever be linked to Folmar, not just the officers in question. Folmar and the city went to court to try to force the officers to submit to questioning about the incident. Folmar ultimately fired the officers, but the city was torn apart by the fallout from the incident.

Development of the City

Folmar was defeated in 1999 by a prison guard-turned-lawyer named Bobby Bright. Bright and current mayor Todd Strange spent years of their terms (and millions of tax dollars) repairing downtown Montgomery. During the 1980s, the whole center of the city became a bombed out and abandoned wellspring of fear. Sure, some of that was caused by white flight and sprawl, factors too large to be caused by a single mayor. Yet, the focused efforts of Bright and Strange (which we admire and mostly support) demonstrate that concentrated leadership in the area of urban development can make a difference. When we moved to Montgomery, there was a near total consensus that downtown was just emerging from a time in which it was a decimated wasteland. Even if some of the credit for Riverwalk redevelopment goes to Folmar (as Mayor Strange said during some of the memorializing), it must also be true that Folmar could have stopped some of the creeping blight before it reached the tragic levels that it did.

One would think that a person from the construction industry would have seen and corrected the ongoing and worsening disrepair of Garrett Coliseum. One would think that someone who made a fortune building shopping malls would have been more attuned to the withering and death of the Montgomery Mall, which remains an abandoned eyesore at the southern entrance to the city.

Like Zizek says in the epigraph to this piece, Folmar (with his focus on the east side of the city) still haunts downtown’s boarded up buildings and the undeniably heart-breaking impoverishment of the city’s west side.

The First Republican

It is a now-familiar thesis in political science circles that George Wallace made people like Newt Gingrich possible. Although a Democrat, Wallace carved out a template for a brand of populism that Republicans used to engineer their 1994 rise to national power. Among the hallmarks of this political mode of being: a resentful contempt for softness, a chest-thumping support for a militant foreign policy, and a toxic distrust of elites, intellectuals, and “special interest” minorities.

Long before dimwits like Ann Coulter showed up on the public radar, Folmar was quoted saying things like:

“You turned the media people loose on me, saying that I had a Reagan-Bush sticker on my car as though it was a city car. I own that car. I furnish my own gas, my own tires … I can do with it what I damn please. I want to let you know that this was the beginning of a long war against what I consider liberals. And anytime one of you liberals gets in my sights, I’m going for the kill and I’m taking no prisoners. You liberal do-gooders have damn near destroyed this country and here is one who is going to do all he’s big enough to do to make damn sure you don’t get your hands on the throttle again. That’s what I told her … No, this war’s not ever going to be over.”

We already noted his stumping for Reagan, and it’s hard for young people to remember what the nation’s climate involved at that time: Afghanistan, ICBMs and the missile gap, AIDS, the explosion of crack cocaine, fear of the Japanese economy, Iran-Contra, the savings and loan crisis, and dozens of other issues that don’t make much sense to contemporary ahistorical minds.

Most Republicans in this era were exceptions to the political rule. Alabama, while conservative, was still part of the “solid South.” Democrats didn’t lose control of the Legislature until 2010. Republicans back then were simply ahead of their time, and it took a while for the national partisan trends to catch up to the groundwork plowed by men like Folmar.

As a Republican, Folmar ran against George Wallace in the gubernatorial campaign of 1982. Wallace had done his whole “repent and apologize” routine for the racist unpleasantness of previous decades and also was operating on some sympathy because a would-be assassin had put him in a wheelchair. In his indispensable book, Black in Selma, a legendary civil rights lawyer tells this interesting story about the Wallace-Folmar campaign:

When he beat MacMillan (in the primary), Wallace came seeking (the Alabama Democratic Conference’s) endorsement in the general election against Emory Folmar, the Republican mayor of Montgomery. Joe Louis Reed, the chairman of ADC, usually called the shots on the state and national endorsements, but this was one decision he didn’t want to make by himself. Joe called about twenty ADC leaders from around the state to come to Montgomery to meet with Wallace the next day in the boardroom of the Alabama Education Association, the state teachers’ union where Joe works. We were all sitting around the big conference table when Wallace — smoking a big cigar — came in with a black man pushing his wheelchair.

He started talking his usual stuff about how he was a populist. He and his family had been dirt poor. He’d built trade schools, raised teachers’ salaries. Emory Folmar was nothing but a damn “Republican chief of police” running around looking for some black heads to whip. He said he wanted us to make a statement endorsing him. He thought it would make a difference.

Somebody said they didn’t think the race would even be close. There weren’t that many Republicans in the state of Alabama except when electing a president.

“In all my years in politics, I’ve never taken a race for granted,” Wallace responded.

Wallace was correct that we weren’t going to ask black people to vote for Emory Folmar, who was so right-wing, some folk in Montgomery called him the mayoratollah. He liked to strap on a pistol and ride to the scenes of crimes with the policemen. More than one black had been shot or injured by the Montgomery police under questionable circumstances, and the black community there deeply disliked him.” — J.L. Chestnut, Black in Selma, p. 334-5

Statewide candidacy rebuffed, Folmar later threw in his lot with Fob James, running Fob’s failure of a campaign against Don Siegelman in 1998. Fob, the sitting Governor at the time, was famous for agitating for prayer in schools and two terms of states rights-themed meanness. James was trounced by Siegelman, the last time that the Democrats managed to win a race for the executive office. Among the highlights from that campaign, Folmar said he “laid a trap” for Winton Blount, James’ challenger in the GOP primary, by having Richard Arrington (the black mayor of Birmingham) endorse Blount. That’s right: For Folmar, it was a strike against you if a black person endorsed you.

Folmar was also famous for always being in shape. He was a high school football star and worked out regularly, maintaining a trim and muscular figure throughout his public life (as noted in the picture above). And in some ways, this is an appropriate metaphor for state partisan politics. The lean and trim GOP, made sharp by year in exile, ultimately destroyed, perhaps permanently, the state Democratic Party that had gotten over-confident, lazy, and bloated from years of control.

The Gun

And then there is the pistol. Every story about Folmar mentions the fact that he packed heat. He said it was because there were threats on his life. Evidently somebody shot out the windows of his car a couple of times. And there certainly seemed to be no lack of bravado from the Marine who killed Koreans during the Truman administration. Many folks seemed to cringe at the primitive Wild West image of a pistol-packing mayor. But others took pride. Folmar was a “man’s man,” showing up many mornings when police did their first roll call. He’d be out there at the scenes of traffic wrecks and crimes, embodying the idea that this was his city, and he had the loaded sidearm to back it up if need be.

Needless to say, it’s extremely difficult to imagine an elected official behaving in this way today. Nothing says “good place for economic development” like a city with a mayor always prepared to draw down on his many foes.

Moral Leadership

Also while running that James campaign, Folmar appeared on a local TV show called “Good Morning Montgomery.” According to an Associated Press article that ran in the Tuscaloosa News on Christmas Eve 1997, someone called into the show to complain about being harassed outside a Montgomery nightclub.

Evidently, the person was gay and the nightclub in question was a gay club. The Mayor called the person a queer.

“I said something to the effect of if you didn’t all hang out together there wouldn’t be a problem.”

To its credit, the Tuscaloosa News slammed Folmar’s comment in the opinion page of the same issue in which it reported the story. And Folmar, for his part, was fully unapologetic about using the slur.

A report complaining that Folmar refused to meet with gay residents or support city AIDS services quoted the Mayor as saying, “I used the word queer and I’ll use it again. I’m not going to call them gay. I don’t approve of their lifestyle one bit.”

Oh, and evidently at one point he described AIDS deaths as “self-inflicted wounds.”

Truly, it was a simpler time.

And then there’s this gem of an AP that ran in the Times Daily on March 5, 1988:

Police broke up a punk-rock concert that Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmar described as a “Satanic event,” sending about 100 disappointed teenagers home without making any arrests.

Um, what? Wow. The ’80s were crazy. We wish there were punk rock shows at The Capri. Well, except for the part where the police raid the place and ruin everything.

The article quotes Capri Theater Director Martin McCaffery as saying, “The kids at the show had much better manners than the police.” He continues:

“After a fishing expedition through our trash cans — which the police videotaped — they found a few empty beer cans, most of which were in there because we confiscated them.”

Police said they showed up because McCaffery rented the theater to someone without a business license. “That’s not usually handled with 30 cops and a paddy wagon,” McCaffery said.

And that wasn’t the last clash between Folmar’s regime and the Capri. It’s hard to fathom now, but religious right protesters flipped out over a movie called The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese. Folmar and then-Gov. Guy Hunt led a “Stand Up for Jesus” protest march, although they declined McCaffery’s invitation to actually view  the film that they were making into political hay.

And that sort of thing was sort of par for the course under Folmar. Numerous people that lived in Montgomery under the Folmar regime remember a string of rock concerts that were ruined (if not banned) by the mayor. It wasn’t that Folmar hated music or the arts — he was partly responsible for bringing the Shakespeare Festival to Montgomery. It was just that he saw young people (and black people) as disrespectful troublemakers and he didn’t want their loud rock music happening in his town (to say nothing of the explosion of hip-hop that was sweeping the rest of the nation in the 1980s).

And in some ways, maybe that’s one of the good things about Folmar’s legacy. He created a counter-cultural opposition. Youth culture can be forged in some memorable fires when your mayor is a dour, gun carrying enemy of fun. Folmar, the glowering gay bashing Reaganite, may have unintentionally given rise to new and interesting forms of cultural opposition. It’s certainly a more revolutionary climate when your mayor is trying to use the city’s toolbox to actively suppress fun and art — versus having the mayor trying to use fun and art as mechanisms to fuel economic development.

Still, that seems like little solace to the actual victims at the time. If you were gay and felt like your mayor hated you, or were black in the birthplace of the civil rights movement and felt like you were still ghettoized, you’re not going to take a lot of comfort in the fact that some skateboarding teen has a convenient nemesis. Hunter S. Thompson got a lot of mileage out Nixon’s evil, but at the end of the day, those kids in Vietnam were still dead.

All told, I think the legacy of Emory Folmar shows us how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time. He seems to have run this town for over two decades in a manner similar to that in which the principal in The Breakfast Club ran the school. He was a hardline authoritarian who probably loved (parts of) Montgomery in equal proportion to his contempt for those who had differing visions of reality.

Good mayors like Bright and Strange seem to understand that it takes a lot of effort to ensure that rising tides lift all boats. The city has a heap of problems on its plate, many of which defy easy solutions. And every one of which will need more than a single mayor to properly tackle. We’re all in this together.

But reflecting on the life and times of Emory Folmar may well give us a map of where we’re going, as much as where we’ve been.

Since Folmar brought the Shakespeare Festival to Montgomery (lured it here from Anniston, where it ran from 1972-1984) perhaps it’s fitting to end this obituary with a quote from Mark Antony’s legendary eulogy of Caesar:

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.

Alabama History Internet Trail

“If you know your history, you will know where you’re coming from.”
— Bob Marley, “Buffalo Soldier”

Recent political reports had me looking at Alabama’s 7th Congressional district, which is about to be redrawn, as is the requirement each time new census data is released. You see, they want the districts to have balanced population numbers, taking into consideration demographics so that racial minorities are given one token seat in Congress fair representation in the political process. But people keep moving around, dying, being born, and so forth, meaning that everytime they do a head count, they also redraw the political lines. And since most people don’t vote, nobody really cares all that much about whether they live in district X or district Y.

But like some sort of sadist, I decided to look at the 7th Congressional district anyway. It’s an especially interesting one since our state is represented in the House of Representatives by all white dudes except for in the 7th, where there’s an African-American lady (who replaced an African-American dude). And if you don’t know the racial political coding that has been in place in Alabama for the last few decades, the black district is repped by a Democrat and the rest of Alabama’s Congressional delegation (the white dudes) is made up of Republicans. [In case you were wondering, our city, Montgomery, is represented currently in Congress by a former member of our city council, Martha Roby, who defeated our former mayor, Bobby Bright, and has gone on to become a surprisingly extreme fringe far right-wing member of the Tea Party freshman class].

Anyhoo, I was scrolling through the Wikipedia entry for ye olde 7th Congressional, looking down the list of folks who had repped the district up there in the Congress.

The district has only once been repped by Republican (from 1965-1967) and is notable for having recently been repped by now-Senator Richard Shelby, who is from Tuscaloosa and can be seen on billboards across the state, sternly glowering his evil waxy Grinch-like face at terrified Alabama motorists.

Anyway, scroll back through the list of D7 reps, long before the time of Shelby, and discover that the district was once repped by the absurdly-named Zadoc L. Weatherford. The good people of D7 were only represented by Dr. Zadoc for a few months in 1940. Sidebar: Is Dr. Zadoc not an amazing comic book name? Sounds like someone that Captain America would fight.

Why did the nefarious Dr. Zadoc only go to Congress for a few months? Turns out he was just filling out the term of William Bankhead, who had died in 1940 while in office. Bankhead was the father of Montgomery’s own, the amazing and immortal Tallulah Bankhead. Bankhead was also the Speaker of the House, making him the highest ranking member of the national political scene from Alabama other than Vice-President William R. King (more on him in a moment).

So Bankhead dies and Dr. Zadoc leaves his medical practice in Red Bay, Alabama, (where he was also president of the bank) to go to D.C. and serve in Congress. He came back and was the mayor of Red Bay for a few years, probably quite a step down from the halls of Congress. Curious about what’s in Red Bay, I looked at the city’s Wikipedia entry, which contains (as of this writing) a strange amount of information about a fire that destroyed the city hall and jail. To wit:

In the summer of 2006, the Red Bay city hall caught fire. Local residents have speculated that the fire started when a squirrel suffered an untimely end at the hands of an electrical transformer. The transformer exploded shortly there after, setting fire to city hall and the city jail. The structure’s ceiling caught fire which then spread to roof above it as well as the more recently added secondary roof structure above the original. City Hall burned to the ground. Construction on a new city hall building has recently begun. The contractor bid for the new city hall by Burton Construction of Belmont, Mississippi was supposedly $750,000 dollars. Bids were also let for a new police department and the lowest bid was $500,000 dollars.

God, I love Wikipedia.

But back to Bankhead, who was the highest ranking national official since our Vice-President. What? Alabama had a Vice President?

Yes. William R. King. Sure, he was VP for only a few months (under Franklin Pierce) before dying of TB, took his inaugural oath in Cuba (which required a special act of Congress), and was thought by historians to have been gay (noted murdering douche Andrew Jackson referred to King and his lover, James Buchanan, as “Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy.”) Oh, and King founded Selma and came up with the name for the city based on a set of poems that are fiercely contested as to their authenticity.

I took Alabama history multiple times as a child growing up in Alabama public schools. I, for one, am outraged that I didn’t get this kind of information from my education and instead had to gather this from the Internet in between sessions shopping at www.greatbigstuff.com.

People of Montgomery, rise up. Demand more from your educations. Let us embrace the total weirdness of our history. It is the only hope for moving forward in these dark days that surround us.

If You Go: The Statehouse

People that actually care

What: It’s possible that you are so intellectually lazy that you have written off all politics under one of the many convenient cliches: “All politicians are all the same,” or “The whole system is corrupt, man.” Or it may well be that in our society of celebrated distraction, you’ve just decided that politics are boring … or more boring than, say, watching movies, dithering around on Facebook, or slaving over your part-time job so that you don’t get fired like your friends did, resulting in you losing your already-limited ability to put food on the table, pay for child care, or put gas in the car.

And if none of the above applies to you, you might well somewhat care that living in Montgomery means that you leave in the same town as the state’s seat of government. That’s right! That thing what governs ya! That means that part of your hometown pride is sharing a city with a right fancy Governor’s Mansion, a very nice Supreme Court building, and the most shameful of the three branches’ headquarters, a Legislature, a.k.a. the Statehouse.

Where: 11 South Union Street. You know that nice building called “the capitol,” with the scenic dome and everything? Well, that’s not it. If you go in there, you might get a nice tour of some historic (and largely empty) rooms, but that’s a post for another day.

No, we’re actually talking about the building across the street, which is sort of non-descript. It’s a big white box, built in 1963 for the state highway department. The Legislature abandoned the old capitol in the 1986 and has been over in this adapted setting ever since. While it’s certainly better than the historic old capitol building, what with creaking balconies and highly-questionable efficiency on things like utilities, the current set-up is also far from ideal.

You name it, and it’s probably a problem: Parking? Difficult, especially if you need to be there longer than a two hour meter will allow. Space in the hallways? Very crowded, especially if someone is having a special event or lobby day. Space for press conferences? Very sketchy. Most are confined to a sort of awkward pit built in front of the main entrance to the building. Accessibility so the public can attend legislative committee hearings, where true democracy can be displayed as citizen input is voiced? Oh, hell no.

Notice the scenic dark fluid collecting in the plastic ceiling tarp hanging in the committee room. Lovely.

Another democracy tarp hanging in the hallway of the Senate offices on the seventh floor.

While they have spent millions of dollars to make right proper chambers for the House and Senate, what with big electronic boards showing who voted which way, etc., the building is still clearly not built for public access to observe the professional doings of their elected officials. They spent a lot to fix the place up after recent torrential rains recently flooded the entire parking garage and lower floor of the building, but really, until we fix our state’s broken tax system, we’ll keep applying layers of patches to this bad old building. There’s just no money (or political will) to do anything else.

So if you’re looking for the cool history tours, do the original Capitol, the White House of the Confederacy, the MLK church on Dexter, and places like that. Don’t expect anything special from the Statehouse. Heck, if you’ve got a visitor in town from out-of-state, a Statehouse tour might just leave you embarrassed.

Who: Bicameral, baby! If you live here in Alabama, you’ve got a Senator and a Representative. The House has 105 members and the Senate is a smaller body with 35 Senators. Without getting detailed about the demographics, both houses as comprised in 2011 are overwhelmingly male, incredibly white, 100 percent Christian, and protected by brand new Republican super-majorities, making compromise wholly unnecessary so long as party discipline prevails.

Why: Well, yeah. Why?

This sort of boils down to your level of cynicism about life, I guess. Do you want to go see some folks hash out the details of laws that many of them barely understand? It can be fun, I must admit. It’s free of charge and if you enjoy things like watching your two uncles argue about tractor parts or American Idol, you might well gain some enjoyment from watching someone from Marengo County argue with someone from Mobile about how best to gut public education or whether the tax breaks given to giant corporations should be massive or merely huge.

And in an actual plus for the “we should encourage people to want to observe their democracy” camp, there’s free wireless. So you can buy things on E-Bay during the many interminable pauses and intentional delays in the action.

And if you’ve given up on the whole premise of going to see civil servants build structures that enhance the common good, well, there’s always the raw entertainment factor. Steeped in the depressing probability of seeing something similar in the near future, here are 3 exciting moments you missed at the Statehouse:

1. The Lt. Governor urinates into a jug on the floor of the Senate. I honestly have no idea if this video is what it purports to be. But it’s an accepted fact that in 1999, Steve Windom responded to an attempt to strip the Lt. Gov’s power by refusing to leave his seat in the Senate. Trying to block the proposal, he just sat there afraid they’d do it as soon as he left the room. And so he humiliated the state and himself … and still lost the fight.

2. Speaking of fights, there’s always a chance you could see one. Sure, it’s less likely now that the GOP controls everything, but maybe that’ll just increase the rage among the relatively powerless Dems. And when that happens, and when tempers start to flare, well, anything can happen when you’re dealing with very proud, very dumb people. That was the scene when, in 2007, Sen. Charles Bishop decided to punch the Senate Rules Committee Chair in the face. Lowell Barron, receiver of the punch, allegedly called Bishop a “son of a bitch.” The lame scuffle was caught on camera and was replayed around the world, meaning that these two elderly jerks made losers of us all.

3. Montgomery’s own Alvin Holmes, who has unfairly been tarred by liberals and conservatives alike as a sort of clown, is actually an amazing and admirable man. He is extremely smart and a ferocious defender of justice. That said, he is also something of a loose cannon, meaning that if you go and watch him do his thing, you might see something like this. We love Rep. Holmes, both for what he does and for how he does it.

When: Here, your options are somewhat limited. You see, although the legislature does meet every year, they only do so for 30 working days. That translates to about 90 to 120 calendar days a year, but if you’re looking for actual floor debate, you’ve got a tiny window of time, somewhere between January and May or so. The tricky part is that the actual meeting time moves around, sometimes starting in January, sometimes in March, depending on what year of the four year cycle it is. So, the best bet is to pay attention.

New “security measures” require visitors to wear stickers. Because added regulations is how you put “constituents first.”

If you want to meet with your representative, the best thing to do is call their office and make an appointment. You’re probably looking at a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday if you want to see them at the Statehouse, although if they’re your rep, they’ll likely want to see you anytime (in theory) and are probably willing to meet you somewhere back home in the district to talk things over with you. At least, that’s how it ought to work.

The reality is that many of them want to spend as little time in Montgomery as possible, and would prefer to talk to you back home and not have you come and see their tiny offices and watch them “in action” on the floor of the chamber. Visitors will note that while many of the reps are busy on the floor of the chamber, many are also using their laptops to cruise Facebook and shop for suits.

And if you’re playing along at home, go here to both look up bills that might be of interest to you and also to listen in to live audio streaming of the action. It can be a little confusing at first if you don’t understand the procedures used, and more so if you’re not such a fanatic that you’ve come to recognize the voices of the folks speaking. But it’s a great window into what’s going on and we can’t commend enough the powers-that-be for providing this invaluable tool to the public.

Bottom Line: It’s great that citizens can see government in action. The Legislature likes to say that the Statehouse is “the peoples’ house,” meaning that it is the most accessible and responsive of the three branches of government. And to some extent, that is true.

But it’s also an increasingly insular world, where new security measures make it harder than ever to meet your representative, where most of the action happens behind closed doors and not on the public stage of the chamber floor.

A plaque on the first floor needs to be updated … but not by much. It’s mostly dudes up there.

Lincoln Cemetery

This summer we spent some time at Greenwood Cemetery. Leaving the cemetery from the non-Wal-Mart side, we turned right and we immediately surprised to see that there was another cemetery just next to Greenwood — one that seemed considerably less manicured (upon closer inspection, downright destroyed and dilapidated). The one of us who is from Alabama called it immediately. “This must be the black cemetery,” he said. “It’s such an Alabama metaphor – right on the other side of the kept-up and swept-up thing, there is another less cared for and less publicized part for the folks who aren’t white.” And it’s true. Greenwood is the final resting place of former governors and beloved football broadcasters. Lincoln is home to a bunch of unmarked and crumbling slabs of marble, overgrown with weeds and marked by erosion and the occasional open grave.

We took a lot of pictures and wandered around the devastation for some time, saddened and astonished by the contrast with the clean-lined and deeply manicured array of memorials and graves on display just next door.

And then … we left the pictures and the idea for the post in our drafts folder here on Lost in Montgomery for quite some time. Months went by. Part of it was that we weren’t entirely sure how to write about what we’d seen, but mostly we reached dead ends (no pun intended) in our few attempts to figure out who owned the land and why the cemetery was so ruined. And we have day jobs, so sometimes it’s hard for us to do the kind of call, follow up, call again work that we could do if we were working as journalists. (Sidebar: This is a great example of why newspapers are incredibly valuable and should be supported with subscriptions. Journalists do critical work and cannot be replaced by bloggers.)

We were shocked at how hard it was to find out who owned Lincoln Cemetery. We saw two old WSFA stories on the place (they are archived here and here), which basically told us what we already knew from being on the property – that it was a shameful, awful mess where burials continued to happen despite a lack of care for the site. No information was given by WSFA on whose fault this was or how they could be fined and/or imprisoned.

Which is why we were so heartened to see the Advertiser run a long Lincoln Cemetery piece on February 16th. You can read the story on their site here, or here (PDF warning). Jill Nolin really did a nice job of trying to figure out what is going on over at the cemetery, and concerned citizens owe it to themselves to read her full account.

It’s pretty crazy that after all the reporting Jill did we still don’t know who owns the cemetery. It seems like the current owner may be either Frederick Berrey or Bobby Cheney, or both. Lloyd Geeslin, who could not be located but whose name is listed as owner on the nomination form for the Alaba­ma Register of Landmarks and Heritage in 1999, could not be located.

Her article did raise enough awareness and outrage, it seems, to prompt a cease-and-desist order for burials at the cemetery and a big clean-up effort. But there’s controversy about the order, as it was issued based on Lincoln’s failure to keep detailed burial records and there are a number of other cemeteries in the city with similarly inadequate records. Yesterday’s Advertiser details the controversy in this article by Lauren Bowar.

This is a very sad story. We’re not saying that every cemetery should be super manicured; on the contrary, sometimes we think that America spends a lot more money on the dead than it should. But the racial disparity between the two adjacent cemeteries is shocking, especially since it seems like the case could be made that they are both historic and worth preservation. If the city can’t find out who owns Lincoln, it owes a duty to the public to take responsibility for the property and keep it up.

Greenwood Cemetery

We found Greenwood Cemetery the same way we find lots of things in town – just driving around. We had goneGreenwood entrance to Oak Park, and decided to follow Highland across Ann Street to see the neighborhood to the north of  and behind the Wal-Mart. That’s how we found the mid-century white gates and Old English font. We both love cemeteries. There’s the obvious essential humanity about mortality and its accompanying rituals; add in the history and culture of burial ceremonies and memorials, the poignancy of being surrounded by some of the last visible remnants of lives lived to their utmost (or not) and the inevitable weirdness you find in any place where folks have been visiting over an extended period of time, and a cemetery can be a great place to get a sense of a community, its culture, and its quirks. Greenwood didn’t disappoint us.

Greenwood’s been open since 1901 and spreads across 150 acres. I learned this from the cemetery’s parent company – it is owned and managed by Dignity™ Memorial (visit their bland corporate-looking website if you wish, although I can’t imagine why you would want to).

The actual real estate is divided into a variety of sections for sub-populations like the Jews, the Masons, and the veterans. And then there’s the super-creepy Babyland, tucked away in the back. Featuring no more than 30 graves or so, Babyland backs up against a chain link fence at the cemetery’s edge. When we were there, a dog was barking at us from a yard on the other side of the fence. We studied the tiny graves, many featuring Santas or toys. The stained toys add to the already tragic atmosphere. Curiously, the burials in this section seemed to end in the mid-70s. Did they run out of space? Was there some kind of problem with Babyland? Customers lost interest in the sales pitch? We may never know.

There are some famous people buried in Greenwood – people like Lister Hill, David and Dixie Graves, and Jim Fyffe. Greenwood’s most famous residents are George and Lurleen Wallace, buried at the “Circle of Life.” Their daughter Peggy wrote this affecting essay about an experience at Greenwood last year. I found their gravesite using the Find a Grave website, where George’s page curiously says that “The Virtual Flowers feature has been turned off for this memorial because it was being continually misused.”