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

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, including the desk where he wrote sermons and speeches.

Honoring the Freedom Riders

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 (80 kilometers) 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 pushed into the background. "We're still fighting these battles. There is still resistance to displaying [civil rights] history," Carrier said.

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 book ends of the same conflict," Sentell said.

Bland said she finds that many visitors to Selma want to see both parts of Alabama's past. "And we've developed tours to make sure they soak it all up," she said.

The Muscle Shoals Sound

For the tourist with more than a couple of days to spend, Alabama offers many attractions that add dimensions to the major civil rights spots.

For instance, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia highlights the famous "Muscle Shoals Sound" — the collection of white musicians and black singers like Percy Sledge and Aretha Franklin who were peacefully turning out hit records while the rest of the state was embroiled in the civil rights turmoil of the '60s.

In Tuskegee, visitors can see the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, the training grounds for a segregated group of World War II pilots who proved that blacks could not only fly planes in combat, they could do it expertly.

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 site. "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.

If You Go…

A sampling of civil rights attractions in Alabama by city:

BIRMINGHAM: Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (520 16th St. N.) traces the civil rights struggle in the South. Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (corner of 16th Street and Sixth Avenue) was where a 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing killed four black girls. Kelly Ingram Park (between 16th and 17th streets) was the site of numerous civil rights protests and has depictions of demonstrators being attacked by police dogs and water hoses. MONTGOMERY: Rosa Parks Museum (252 Montgomery St.) salutes the woman whose arrest prompted the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (454 Dexter Ave.) is where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor while leading the bus boycott. The state Capitol (600 Dexter Ave.) is where the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march ended in 1965 and where Gov. George Wallace made his "segregation forever" speech in 1963 and Jefferson Davis took the oath as president of the Confederacy in 1861. The Dexter Avenue Church Parsonage (309 S. Jackson St.) is the home where King lived in Montgomery; it was recently restored with many of the furnishings he used. The Greyhound Bus Terminal (210 S. Court St.) is where the Freedom Riders were beaten in 1961. It is closed now, but a museum is planned. The First Baptist Church (347 N. Ripley St.) and Holt Street Baptist Church (903 S. Holt St.) were the site of many rallies. SELMA: The Edmund Pettus Bridge (U.S. 80 across the Alabama River) was the site where voting rights marchers were beaten in 1965. The National Voting Rights Museum (1012 Water Ave.) traces the battle for the right to vote. Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church (410 Martin Luther King St.) was the site of many rallies and where the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march began. TUSKEGEE: The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site (1616 Chappy James Dr.) is where the nation's first group of black military pilots trained in World War II. Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site (1212 Old Montgomery Rd.) includes 27 landmarks associated with black educators Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. BOOKS: "A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement" by Jim Carrier (Harcourt, $14); "The Best of Alabama" by Lee Sentell (Seacoast Publishing, $12.95; telephone orders available for an additional $3.50 shipping and tax from 205-979-2909.) ROAD: A 43-mile (69-kilometer) route between Selma and Montgomery has been designated an "All-American Road" by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation for the America's Byways program. For information to help you plan a drive there, click on Alabama at the Web site. FOR MORE INFORMATION: Visit the state's official tourism site,