Civil Rights Tourists Head to Alabama

ByPhillip Rawls

M O N T G O M E R Y, Ala., Feb. 10, 2004 -- In Montgomery, Jefferson Davis Avenuecrosses Rosa Parks Avenue, creating an appropriate intersection fora place that used to rely on Civil War tourism but that now drawsvisitors to a growing number of civil rights attractions.

Events that made Alabama a civil rights battleground in the1950s and '60s — Ku Klux Klan bombings, beatings of Freedom Ridersand the jailing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — are now beingremembered in state-of-the-art museums and historic preservationprojects.

"Alabama stands at the epicenter of America's secondrevolution," says Jim Carrier, author of A Traveler's Guide tothe Civil Rights Movement.

Dollar signs back up his judgment. State tourism director LeeSentell 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 ofwhat was a battlefield in the '60s," Sentell said.

An Historic Triangle

Many of Alabama's major attractions are found in a triangleformed by Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma.

Birmingham was the first major Alabama city to develop its civilrights history when the city's first black mayor, RichardArrington, helped create a historic district around the park andchurch where many demonstrations began. The city's Civil RightsInstitute opened in 1992.

The institute takes visitors back to the time when life inAlabama was separate and unequal. A major attraction is the cellwhere King wrote his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" whileincarcerated for civil disobedience.

Across the street is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, thesite of civil rights rallies and of a bomb planted by Klansmen thatkilled four girls on Sept. 15, 1963. It was the 47th bombing inBirmingham during the civil rights era and one of the reasons thecity was often called "Bombingham." In Selma, the Edmund Pettus Bridge stands as the emblem of thevoting rights movement. Alabama state troopers took tear gas andbilly clubs to marchers on March 7, 1965, in what became known as"Bloody Sunday." Two weeks later, King led a voting rights marchfrom Selma to Montgomery, where it culminated in front of thestarch-white state Capitol where Jefferson Davis took the oath aspresident of the Confederate States of America a century earlier.

King later called the march "the most powerful and dramaticcivil rights protest that has ever taken place in the South." Itled to Congress passing the Voting Rights Act, which openedSouthern voting booths to blacks and made Mississippi and Alabamanational leaders in the number of blacks in public office.

Selma recreates the voting rights march each year, with thisyear's Bridge Crossing Jubilee scheduled for March 5-7.

The city also remembers the events with a homegrown attractioncalled the National Voting Rights Museum. While the museum lacksthe fancy high-tech attractions that some other museums in thestate have, it is run by and has tours conducted by people whoparticipated in the bloody events of the 1960s.

"We feel it's very, very important that people hear the storiesfrom the mouths of people who did it. What better way is there tolearn history?" said Joanne Bland, the executive director, whoparticipated 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 oldtourism slogan — "Cradle of the Confederacy" — to add "andBirthplace 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 acivil rights leader when he agreed to lead a yearlong boycott ofMontgomery's bus system in 1955-56. The boycott stemmed from thearrest of Rosa Parks, a black seamstress who refused to give herbus seat to a white passenger as city ordinances required. Theboycott led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that integrated thebuses.

Troy State University at Montgomery has opened the Rosa ParksMuseum at the spot where Parks was arrested. One emotional exhibitfeatures a vintage city bus with TV screens instead of windows thatshow 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 granitefountain bearing the names of 40 people killed during the civilrights struggle in the South.

Newly opened is the Dexter Avenue Church Parsonage, where Kinglived in Montgomery. It has been restored with much of thefurniture he used, including the desk where he wrote sermons andspeeches.

Honoring the Freedom Riders

More exhibits are planned. The old Greyhound bus terminal isbeing turned into a museum honoring the Freedom Riders, black andwhite bus passengers who were beaten by a white mob in 1961 fortesting a Supreme Court ruling that prohibited segregation ininterstate 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 ChapelA.M.E. Church in Selma, where it began, to the Capitol, where itended. The Capitol plans were delayed two years ago afterConfederate heritage groups complained that Civil War history wasbeing pushed into the background. "We're still fighting these battles. There is still resistanceto displaying [civil rights] history," Carrier said.

For many years Alabama's tourism agency primarily promoted CivilWar attractions, such as antebellum homes and a hoop-skirted imageof long ago. Things began to change 20 years ago when — during theadministration of King's old foe, Gov. George C. Wallace — Alabamabecame the first state to publish a black heritage tour guide.

The guide has grown dramatically in size, and nearly 1 millionhave been distributed, Sentell said.

"To me, the Civil War and civil rights are not separatestories. They are book ends of the same conflict," Sentell said.

Bland said she finds that many visitors to Selma want to seeboth parts of Alabama's past. "And we've developed tours to makesure 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 majorcivil rights spots.

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

In Tuskegee, visitors can see the Tuskegee Airmen NationalHistoric Site, the training grounds for a segregated group of WorldWar II pilots who proved that blacks could not only fly planes incombat, they could do it expertly.

For Rep. Alvin Holmes, the longest-serving black member of theAlabama Legislature, the droves of tourists visiting civil rightsand black heritage attractions is an amazing site. "I never dreamed in the '60s when we were marching, gettingbeat up by brutal police officers and going to jail that one daythousands of people would come to see these sites. I thought manyof 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 StreetBaptist Church (corner of 16th Street and Sixth Avenue) was where a1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing killed four black girls. Kelly IngramPark (between 16th and 17th streets) was the site of numerous civilrights protests and has depictions of demonstrators being attackedby police dogs and water hoses. MONTGOMERY: Rosa Parks Museum (252 Montgomery St.) salutes thewoman whose arrest prompted the Montgomery Bus Boycott. DexterAvenue King Memorial Baptist Church (454 Dexter Ave.) is where theRev. Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor while leading the busboycott. The state Capitol (600 Dexter Ave.) is where theSelma-to-Montgomery voting rights march ended in 1965 and whereGov. George Wallace made his "segregation forever" speech in 1963and Jefferson Davis took the oath as president of the Confederacyin 1861. The Dexter Avenue Church Parsonage (309 S. Jackson St.) isthe home where King lived in Montgomery; it was recently restoredwith 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. HoltSt.) were the site of many rallies. SELMA: The Edmund Pettus Bridge (U.S. 80 across the AlabamaRiver) was the site where voting rights marchers were beaten in1965. The National Voting Rights Museum (1012 Water Ave.) tracesthe battle for the right to vote. Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church (410Martin Luther King St.) was the site of many rallies and where the1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march began. TUSKEGEE: The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site (1616Chappy James Dr.) is where the nation's first group of blackmilitary pilots trained in World War II. Tuskegee InstituteNational Historic Site (1212 Old Montgomery Rd.) includes 27landmarks associated with black educators Booker T. Washington andGeorge Washington Carver. BOOKS: "A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement" byJim Carrier (Harcourt, $14); "The Best of Alabama" by Lee Sentell(Seacoast Publishing, $12.95; telephone orders available for anadditional $3.50 shipping and tax from 205-979-2909.) ROAD: A 43-mile (69-kilometer) route between Selma andMontgomery has been designated an "All-American Road" by the U.S.Secretary of Transportation for the America's Byways program. Forinformation to help you plan a drive there, click on Alabama at thewww.byways.org Web site. FOR MORE INFORMATION: Visit the state's official tourism site,www.800alabama.com

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events