Alabama Civil Rights Tour
For years, I have wanted to tour civil rights sites in Alabama. The Equal Justice Initiative’s new Legacy Museum and Peace and Justice Memorial grew that interest. The history is inspiring and it is heavy – the reminders that the struggle continues are everywhere. I’ve studied this history extensively, but I think anyone visiting would find it instructive, moving, and meaningful. A number of people asked about our trip, so here are my notes on our experience.
The sad thing is that in 2020 you could do the exact opposite of this tour, as there are clearly still monuments and memorials to the Confederacy and white supremacy. We had no problem avoiding them. It was strange, however, visiting sites and people continuing the fight for civil rights and social justice while in an Alabama that continues to be ruled by right wing white supremacist politics.
Here is what we were able to do during our three-day visit, all of which we recommend. We visited in late January and had relatively good weather. It was high 50s during the day and 40s at night. We had heavy rains the first day, but the other days were sunny and we walked everywhere.
Day 1: Birmingham, AL
We flew into Birmingham. The airport is named after Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a pioneering civil rights leader in Birmingham. The airport has an exhibit on Rev. Shuttlesworth’s life and work. We stayed at the Hampton Inn Downtown-Tutwiler, an updated historic hotel. We had excellent morning coffee at Revelator Coffee Birmingham. The hotel, coffee shop, and the 3 main sites are all within a 10 minute walk (it was pouring rain so we drove).
16th Street Baptist Church. This is the church that served as the gathering place for many meetings and marches, including the Children’s March in 1963. The church is infamous, though, for the bombing on September 15, 1963 that tragically killed 4 girls. The tour begins with an exhibit on the history of the church, which is tied to the history of the city and its African American community. Then there is a short film about the bombing, and a visit to the church. To visit, you must be part of a tour. I contacted the church a month or so in advance, and they invited us to join a group that was touring at 9 AM. The tour takes about one hour.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Across the street from 16th Street Baptist Church, The Civil Rights institute is a museum which walks through the civil rights movement year by year. The visit begins with an excellent film and then took about 1.5 to 2 hours to visit the excellent exhibits.
Kelly Ingraham Park. The park is one square block across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Institute. The park has a series of emotionally powerful sculptures memorializing the movement from the 4 murdered girls to the attacks of protesters by water hoses and police dogs.
We then ate one of the best sandwiches ever at Saw’s BBQ before driving to Montgomery (about an 80 minute drive). We had wanted to visit Bethel Baptist Church where Rev. Shuttlesworth preached, but did not have the opportunity. There is also a walk that has markers throughout the city that the rain did not agree with.
Because it was pouring rain, we decided to take in a movie, and Just Mercy, a great film based on Bryan Stevenson’s best selling book of the same name was showing at 5 PM in Montgomery. The film is about the beginnings of the Equal Justice Initiative , fighting to release a man wrongfully convicted on death row. It is a great film, and our hotel, the Hampton Inn in Montgomery was next door to EJI’s offices (and walking distance from almost every civil rights site in the city). Two of Montgomery’s most important new civil rights sites were created by EJI, and it is worth reading the book and seeing the film and/or the HBO documentary before visiting.
Day 2: Montgomery
In most of my speeches and workshops, I tell the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I wrote about it in my book, Everyone Leads, and built on it since, using Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters and Jeanne Theoharris’s The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks as my main sources. I use the boycott to illustrate what collective leadership looks like by walking through the stories of many different leaders and the role each played in contributing to the success of the Montgomery movement. Having told this story more than 200 times, I was both geeked out and deeply moved to visit these sites, and also I learned new information and insights about the movement.
We began day 2 at another excellent coffee shop, Prevail Union, in Montgomery, one block from our hotel. It also became our regular spot for breakfast and afternoon breaks (they also serve beer and wine as well). The coffee shop is right next to the building where Rosa Parks worked and where she boarded her bus on December 1st, 1955. There is a new statue of Mrs. Parks with the names of the other women arrested in Montgomery before her memorialized with a plaque (Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald).
We then walked about 10 minutes to Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Dr. King pastored in 1955. We got there in time for the 10 AM tour, and were greeted by hugs at the door by Wanda Battle, who led us into Dr. King’s preserved office. Along with Dr. King’s time there, she shared her inspiring personal story, told the story of her cousin Claudette Colvin (who at 15 was arrested 9 months before Mrs. Parks for refusing to give up her seat on the bus), and generally lifted our spirits.
The tour lasted about 50 minutes, which allowed us to walk brusquely for 10 minutes to Dr King’s home, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Parsonage. The home is filled with original furnishings, and they show a brief film before the visit. As we stood in the kitchen, our guide played us a speech of Dr. King speaking about a powerful evening of reflection he spent in this very kitchen. It was a great ending to a 45 minute visit.
We walked back toward downtown to get lunch at Cahawba House, which bills itself as Bama Bona Fide Southern Cuisine, and it did not disappoint. We were glad we walked all morning and would be walking all afternoon after that meal.
After lunch, we visited the Freedom Rides Museum which was 2 blocks from the restaurant. This is a fairly small museum that sits in the former Greyhound station outside which the Freedom Riders were attacked. Among the photos and stories, there is a small room with video testimonials from Freedom Riders that I enjoyed watching – several of the people I had read about but it was powerful to hear their narratives directly. We spent about 45 minutes there.
We then walked about 8 minutes to the new Equal Justice Initiative National Memorial for Peace and Justice. We decided to visit the Memorial the first day, and the Legacy Museum the second day (which is about 10 minutes walk from the Memorial). The ticket office and gift shop are across the street from the Memorial. The memorial begins with statues reflecting slavery, and ends with statues representing mass incarceration and the leadership of every day people in civil rights. The memorial itself is constructed from pillars representing each county in the U.S. where lynchings occurred between the Civil War and World War 2. On each pillar are the names of the victims. There are so many pillars, so many names. It is incredibly moving. They have a duplicate pillar for each county lined up like graves next to the memorial. They have been offered to those counties to mark spots where lynchings occurred. Sadly, few have requested their pillars. It will take at least an hour to walk through and process.
From there we walked 10 minutes to the Rosa Parks Library and Museum. The museum stands at the site where Mrs. Parks was arrested. The experience begins with 3 films. First, you sit in a room with various documents and photos while they show a short film about the boycott. Then you go into a second room where there is a bus where a film recreating Mrs. Parks’ arrest shows across the windows of the bus. After then a third video across screens shares the story of Joanna Robinson’s work printing more than 50,000 fliers in 24 hours announcing the boycott. Then the guides walked us through the various exhibits about the boycott. The tour took about 1 hour.
Later, I took a quick walk through the Hank Williams Museum which was next to our hotel. I enjoyed seeing some of the items, but it was not well organized by any narrative or chronology. Lots of cool stuff, but it lacked context. I love Hank’s music, but was turned off when I saw their gift shop had among its many posters one that included a confederate flag.
Day 3: Selma and Montgomery
The drive to Selma from Montgomery takes about 1 hour. Just over the Edmund Pettus bridge, there is the Selma Interpretive Center run by the National Park Service. They have exhibits on Bloody Sunday and the other marches for voting rights. I was so moved by the images and video of John Lewis and the other protesters the moment before they are attacked on Bloody Sunday. Their courage and determination call us all to do and be more. We chanced upon a tour group who was listening to an oral history by speaker Joanne Bland. She was only 11 years old when she joined her 14 year old sister at all three marches over the bridge.
We then walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge (maybe a 10 minute walk) and visited the small park on the other side which has some memorials in it. There was a young man who takes care of the park and sells some memorabilia to support it. He shared stories of people he knew and his current activism for voting in Alabama. There is also a Voting Rights Museum across the street, but we did not get there on this trip.
After walking back across the bridge, we drove to the Brown Chapel AME Church. The church was the meeting place and the staging location for the Selma to Montgomery marches. We contacted the church to see if we could tour, but did not get a response. The church has some monuments and memorials outside. After a quick stop, we visited Lannie’s Bar-B-Q Spot. It has been around for decades and is old school Southern BBQ, the kind of place where they serve you order at the counter, pick up your food at the counter, and then when you are finished eating return the counter again to pay. Great food and great service and great history.
About halfway between Selma and Montgomery is the Lowndes Interpretive Center, a National Park Service site that shares the story of the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. The museum has a mix of displays, and stories that made it well worth the visit. It took about 45 minutes to walk through.
On the drive back, we stopped at First Baptist Church where Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Dr. King’s partner in the SCLC, preached. There was a historical marker, but it was not clear that they welcomed visits. I would have liked to see Holt Street Baptist Church where 5,000 people met 3 days after Mrs. Parks arrest to support the boycott. Like any trip, you can’t do it all.
We ended the day with our scheduled visit to the Legacy Museum, created by the Equal Justice Initiative that traces the pathway from slavery to mass incarceration. This museum is new, highly interactive, high tech, and powerfully instructive. There are holograms of enslaved people sharing their stories, a walking narrative on how slavery became mass incarceration, the opportunity to sit and hear stories from people in prison, videos about abusive incarceration, and more. While much of the city honors past civil rights struggles, this one calls for struggle now. This museum and the memorial are worth a visit to Montgomery on their own. The museum takes about two hours to explore, and much longer to process. I was glad we ended our day here. There is a gift shop, café, and soul food restaurant 1.5 blocks from the museum I stopped at for books and a coffee.
We ate dinner that night at Vintage Year, which was absolutely delicious. Amazing food and service. On Sunday morning after coffee and before driving to the airport, we did walk by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s National Civil Rights Memorial. We were not able to visit the center, but there is always next time…
A fourth day would have allowed a more leisurely and comprehensive tour of the area, but three allowed us to see a lot. We were not burned out or overwhelmed by the variety of sites and experiences. The emotions the visits stirred up stuck with us. The tours allowed us to honor past struggles, and moved us to re-commit to the struggle today.
Another great resource for planning a trip is The United States Civil Rights Trail.