Civil Rights Tourists Head to Alabama

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 historic 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.

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.

An Historic Triangle

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 recreates the voting rights march each year, with this year's Bridge Crossing Jubilee scheduled for 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.

Where King Became Civil Rights Leader

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