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.