In Montgomery, Jefferson Davis Avenue crosses Rosa Parks Avenue, creating an appropriate intersection for a place that used to rely on Civil War tourism but that now draws visitors...
MONTGOMERY, Ala. In Montgomery, Jefferson Davis Avenue crosses Rosa Parks Avenue, creating an appropriate intersection for a place that used to rely on Civil War tourism but that now draws visitors to a growing number of civil-rights attractions.
Events that made Alabama a civil-rights battleground in the 1950s and ’60s Ku Klux Klan bombings, beatings of Freedom Riders and the jailing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are now being remembered in state-of-the-art museums and historical preservation projects.
“Alabama stands at the epicenter of America’s second revolution,” says Jim Carrier, author of “A Traveler’s Guide to the Civil Rights Movement.”
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Dollar signs back up his judgment. State tourism director Lee Sentell says black heritage tourism is a growing part of Alabama’s $6.8 billion-a-year travel industry.
“No other state has the quality or quantity of destinations of what was a battlefield in the ’60s,” Sentell said.
Many of Alabama’s major attractions are found in a triangle formed by Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma.
Birmingham was the first major Alabama city to develop its civil-rights history when the city’s first black mayor, Richard Arrington, helped create a historic district around the park and church where many demonstrations began. The city’s Civil Rights Institute opened in 1992.
The institute takes visitors back to the time when life in Alabama was separate and unequal. A major attraction is the cell where King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” while incarcerated for civil disobedience.
Across the street is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the site of civil-rights rallies and of a bomb planted by Klansmen that killed four girls on Sept. 15, 1963. It was the 47th bombing in Birmingham during the civil-rights era and one of the reasons the city was often called “Bombingham.”
In Selma, the Edmund Pettus Bridge stands as the emblem of the voting-rights movement. Alabama state troopers took tear gas and billy clubs to marchers on March 7, 1965, in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Two weeks later, King led a voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery, where it culminated in front of the starch-white state capitol where Jefferson Davis took the oath as president of the Confederate States of America a century earlier.
King later called the march “the most powerful and dramatic civil-rights protest that has ever taken place in the South.” It led to Congress passing the Voting Rights Act, which opened Southern voting booths to blacks and made Mississippi and Alabama national leaders in the number of blacks in public office.
Selma re-creates the voting-rights march each year, with this year’s Bridge Crossing Jubilee scheduled March 5-7.
The city also remembers the events with a homegrown attraction called the National Voting Rights Museum. While the museum lacks the fancy high-tech attractions that some other museums in the state have, it is run by and has tours conducted by people who participated in the bloody events of the 1960s.
“We feel it’s very, very important that people hear the stories from the mouths of people who did it. What better way is there to learn history?” said Joanne Bland, the executive director, who participated in the voting-rights march as an 11-year-old.
In Montgomery, city officials have expanded the city’s old tourism slogan “Cradle of the Confederacy” to add “and Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Visitors can see the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King changed from being a local minister to a civil-rights leader when he agreed to lead a yearlong boycott of Montgomery’s bus system in 1955-56. The boycott stemmed from the arrest of Rosa Parks, a black seamstress who refused to give her bus seat to a white passenger as city ordinances required. The boycott led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that integrated the buses.
Troy State University at Montgomery has opened the Rosa Parks Museum at the spot where Parks was arrested. One emotional exhibit features a vintage city bus with TV screens instead of windows that show actors re-enacting the events that earned Parks the title of “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”
A few blocks away is the Civil Rights Memorial, a black granite fountain bearing the names of 40 people killed during the civil-rights struggle in the South.
Newly opened is the Dexter Avenue Church Parsonage, where King lived in Montgomery. It has been restored with much of the furniture he used.
More exhibits are planned. The old Greyhound bus terminal is being turned into a museum honoring the Freedom Riders, black and white bus passengers who were beaten by a white mob in 1961 for testing a Supreme Court ruling that prohibited segregation in interstate transportation.
The federal government has declared the 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery as the National Voting Rights Trail. Museums and displays are planned along the route from Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, where it began, to the capitol, where it ended. The capitol plans were delayed two years ago after Confederate heritage groups complained that Civil War history was being slighted.
“We’re still fighting these battles. There is still resistance to displaying (civil-rights) history,” Carrier said.
‘Bookends of the same conflict’
For many years Alabama’s tourism agency primarily promoted Civil War attractions, such as antebellum homes and a hoop-skirted image of long ago. Things began to change 20 years ago when during the administration of King’s old foe, Gov. George C. Wallace Alabama became the first state to publish a black heritage tour guide.
The guide has grown dramatically in size, and nearly 1 million have been distributed, Sentell said.
“To me, the Civil War and civil rights are not separate stories. They are bookends of the same conflict,” Sentell said.
For Rep. Alvin Holmes, the longest-serving black member of the Alabama Legislature, the droves of tourists visiting civil-rights and black-heritage attractions is an amazing sight.
“I never dreamed in the ’60s when we were marching, getting beat up by brutal police officers and going to jail that one day thousands of people would come to see these sites. I thought many of the people who were killed would never be remembered,” he said.