Civil Rights Tourists Head to Alabama

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.

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