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The Nation

Ala. City Seals Its New Era

July 03, 2002|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Seeking to dilute images of its racist past, officials in Montgomery, Ala., voted Tuesday to add the motto "Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement" to the city seal.

For 50 years, the seal has carried the phrase "Cradle of the Confederacy," a reference to the city's role as the first capital of the Confederate States of America.

But many residents of Montgomery, where blacks now outnumber whites, found that legacy offensive. And they wanted to honor the city's role as site of the first major civil rights demonstration, the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56.

The new seal, approved by a unanimous vote, features both slogans, along with a six-pointed gold star.

"Let's face it," said Councilman Willie Cook, who led the effort to include the civil rights motto, "our city has a dual history. Now our seal reflects that."

Seals, flags and other public symbols have become increasingly controversial in the South as residents struggle with how to display their history.

While many white Southerners celebrate their Confederate heritage, many blacks loathe it for its connection to slavery. Last year, after a long, emotional debate, Georgia changed its state flag from one dominated by the Confederate battle cross to one barely showing it.

South Carolina and Alabama have also wrestled with placement of the Confederate cross on public property.

"Cradle of the Confederacy" was added to the Montgomery seal in 1952 by an all-white City Council reacting to the rumblings of the civil rights movement.

Since then, the seal has appeared on the city letterhead, official correspondence and police badges.

"How would you like it if you're black and get stopped by an officer wearing that on his chest?" asked Cook, who is black.

In May, Cook proposed the new slogan but stopped short of calling for the removal of the Confederate wording.

Though whites make up less than half of Montgomery's 202,000 residents, the mayor and the majority of council members are white.

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