In Montgomery, the Memory of the Civil Rights Movement Lives On in the Kitchen

A Greek immigrant who tried to resist the KKK at his hot dog restaurant. A cook who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Here, the stories of restaurant owners who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. 

martha hawkins view from rsa
Photo: Courtesy of Carter Photography and Design

Martha Hawkins—the owner and cook at Martha’s Place in Montgomery, Alabama—can remember a time when the thought of owning her restaurant was so far-fetched that it could hardly be imagined. Though she spent much of her childhood with her mother in the kitchen, her teenage years were dedicated to furthering a cause close to her family's heart: the Civil Rights Movement.

Hawkins grew up in Montgomery, along with her twelve siblings. Her father grew collard greens, squash, string beans, and cabbage in the family garden, while her mother cooked for the family every night. Once Hawkins was around 12, but not before, for fear that she would ruin the recipe and waste the food, she began cooking with her mother.

“She was an excellent cook,” Hawkins recalls now. “All my friends would always come over. She fed everybody.”

Cooking would become Hawkins' lifelong passion—what she calls her gift from God—but when she wasn’t in the kitchen learning the fundamentals from her mother, she was often in the streets with her father, her two nephews, and her brother, marching for civil rights.

“We used to not go to school so we could march,” she says. “At that particular time, your parents didn’t let you go anyplace, but they allowed us to march.”

Hawkins was at the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement. At her local church, Hawkins helped build bag lunches—fruit, chips, and a soda—for marchers arriving in town from Selma. She also recalls hearing Martin Luther King Jr. gives speeches at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, after which he would often call on the congregation to gather for a march. On one occasion, Dr. King called off the protest because of trouble with the police. Eventually, Hawkins and her companions were allowed to leave the church and walk home, but danger followed them.

“As we were walking home, the Ku Klux Klan men came, and they were running us [down] with horses. We were ducking and dodging and running, trying to get out of the way,” she remembers. “One of the guys—his hood came off. We realized that was Mr. Jack who owned a grocery store in our neighborhood and everybody was so shocked. We had been going to his grocery store all this time, and here he was running us over with horses. So we boycotted his store, and it ended up closing.”

Despite the hardships she faced, Hawkins’ love of cooking endured. She felt especially inspired by Georgia Gilmore, who cooked for civil rights leaders and protestors during the bus boycotts.

“I knew about her because they were always [writing] about her in the newspaper. At that time, she was the only one able to get away with cooking in her home the way she did,” explains Hawkins. “Everybody used to say, ‘We’re going to Georgia Gilmore’s’. Dr. King, Robert Kennedy—they would strategize around her kitchen table.”

Reading about Georgia Gilmore’s home cooked meals played a large part in driving Hawkins to open up her own restaurant, Martha’s Place, in 1988.

“That’s what really made me want to have a restaurant, where I could have people come to my place,” she says. “That’s why I wanted an old house [for the restaurant]. That’s how I started dreaming about opening Martha’s Place.”

By the time Hawkins decided to open her restaurant—though she had never cooked in a restaurant kitchen in her life—her children were grown and she was living on welfare. The bank would not give her a loan. But she did have a friend with a house she could convert into a restaurant. With the help of $2,500 grant from the Black Women’s Economic Development Group, Hawkins began building her business—even repainting the home’s walls herself.

Hawkins has been running Martha’s Place for thirty years now, preparing the same recipes that have been on the menu since she opened. She credits her community, which she says rallied around her, for her success. It’s her ability to bring joy to people through food that has really kept her restaurant around this long, though.

“I ended being just like [my mother]. To me cooking is an art. That is my happy time,” she says. “To be able to cook something that someone else enjoys, to me that is magic.”

More than thirty years before Hawkins would march with Dr. King, Christopher Anastasios Katechis—better know as Chris—arrived in America through Ellis Island. He began wandering around New York City, getting to know his new home. Katechis noticed the hot dog carts dotting the street corners right away. When he later relocated Montgomery, Alabama, Katechis opened a fruit stand, but he what he really wanted was his own restaurant. As his grandson Gus tells is, Katechis was determined to become American, through and through. And what’s more American than hot dogs?

On May 1, 1917, Katechis opened Chris’ Hot Dogs, which claims to be the longest running restaurant in Montgomery. Since opening, Chris’ Hot Dogs has fed President Franklin Roosevelt, who would have the dogs served to him by a porter on the train. Hank Williams had a regular booth at Chris’, where he would order a shot and a beer, and write songs. Because of its location, Katechis’ restaurant would also end up being witness to one of the most important political movement in this country’s history.

The restaurant is located on Dexter Avenue. Rosa Parks worked as a seamstress across the street. You can see the Posey Parking Lot, where, during the bus boycotts, protestors would gather to carpool to work, from the restaurant. It’s also just three blocks from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Hawkins frequently watched Dr. King give his sermons. For much of the mid-to-late fifties, Dr. King stopped by Chris’ Hot Dogs on Sunday mornings.

“He would pick up the Sunday national papers from my grandfather,” Gus Katechis tells me with pride. “My grandfather respected him. One of the only other religious figures that walked during [the Selma to Montgomery march] was a Greek Orthodox priest. That priest met with my grandfather.”

In those days, explains Gus, many businesses in the area had to “go by the rules” of the Ku Klux Klan—members of the group often terrorized business owners who did not comply and at Chris’ Hot Dogs, the situation was no different. Katechis had no choice but to segregate his restaurant.

Gus’s father, Theo, who was just a child at time, recalls seeing people of color walking straight to the register to order their meal to go—they weren’t allowed to sit at the counter and enjoy their food like the white customers. There were even separate entrances: People of color had to enter on Monroe Street, while white customers entered on Dexter Avenue.

“It was a stressful time in the city. It was a really tense, what with the bus boycotts,” Gus says.

Still, Katechis decided to push back against the KKK. As Gus tells it, back then people of color were not allowed to work at the register or take money from customers—they could only cook or clean. His grandfather, however, promoted one of his black employees to the register. When the KKK caught wind of Katechis’ decision, they began harassing him.

“They told him, ‘You better get this guy out of here,’ although they probably used different terms. They threatened to burn down the restaurant,” Gus says.

In the interest of saving his business, Katechis got in touch with the nearby Sears department store, which was by then integrated, and found the man a job in a safer environment. Gus says his grandfather treated everyone with respect, welcoming each customer with a “Hey friend, how are you?” or a warm “Ya’ll come in,” so it was natural for him to look out of the welfare of all his employees.

Katechis and a young Hawkins both brushed shoulders with Dr. King, perhaps walking Dexter Avenue at the same time, perhaps even passing each other on the street, but they never met. Now, Katechis’ stories from that time live on in his grandson, while Hawkins’ restaurant remains a monument to Georgia Gilmore. In Montgomery, the Civil Rights Movement is hardly a faded memory—if you want to hear about what life was like back then, all you have to do is walk into a kitchen.

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