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Living history

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Aroine Irby addresses students at the Alabama State Capitol.

Capitol tour guide lived through pivotal time

By Jennifer Kornegay

The Alabama state Capitol building’s magnificent white dome has looked down
upon some of our country’s most important events. On its white marble
steps, in 1861, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as the first and only president
of the Confederate States of America; a bronze star marks the spot. More than
100 years later, at the edge of the same steps, another event unfolded, one that
would change the world.

On March 25, 1965, 25,000 marchers arrived in downtown Montgomery after
traveling on foot from Selma for four days. They made their way to the Capitol
steps in the final leg of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, a peaceful
protest led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and one of the defining moments
of the civil rights movement. As a direct result of the March, the Voting
Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law.

Today, you can tour the Capitol to learn more about its rich and turbulent past,
and there’s no better person to have as your guide than Aroine Irby. After
retiring from the Air Force, the Gees Bend native became a docent for the
Alabama Historical Commission and has been leading 12 tours a week for 10
years, walking folks through the Capitol’s storied halls, entertaining
and educating them with his big personality and even bigger grin.

He begins by telling visitors that the Capitol is a “working museum.” He
explains the origins of our state flag. He points out the two grand circular
staircases designed by a former slave, renowned bridge builder and one of
Alabama’s first black legislators, Horace King. But he also adds a personal
perspective, and it’s one worth hearing. Irby was an active participant in the
civil rights movement and lived through some of its most pivotal and dramatic
moments. Near the middle of the tour, he leads visitors out the massive front
doors to the marble steps and speaks with pride as he shares his experiences.
He was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma when the first march to Montgomery
was stopped by law enforcement in a violent spectacle now known as Bloody
Sunday.

He praises King for his insistence that the marchers remain passive in the face
of brutality. “That was a tough pill for me and many of the protesters to
swallow, but he was right. It was the key to the movement’s success.” And he
smiles as he recounts the day all the suffering finally paid off. “When we
made it to the steps in the final march, that day was unlike any other. It was an
amazing achievement, and it turned the attention of the world to our plight.
I’ll never forget Dr. King’s words, and what we all earned in that struggle, the
right to cast our vote like every other American.”

Irby went on to work for Gov. George Wallace for a short time, the man who
only a few years earlier stood on the Capitol steps and vowed that nothing
would change. Irby says that later, Wallace had a true change of heart. “It
was an act of God, and to this day I maintain that he was one of the best
governors our state ever had, even in the bad times,” he says. “His speeches
and stubbornness pushed us to do what we did.”

And Irby maintains that in his last years in office, Wallace did more for
minorities in Alabama than any other governor. “And not just blacks, but
women and Latinos too,” he says.

This spring, find the time to take a Capitol tour with Irby; his enthusiasm
for keeping the history of the Capitol alive is obvious and contagious. “If I
was a rich man, I’d pay the commission to let me continue to do this,” he says.