No other state in the country has had as much historical impact on the civil rights movement as Alabama. Violence, injustice, and racism were the mainstays of life for African Americans who were treated as second-class citizens throughout the South, even after the abolition of slavery. Jim Crow laws discriminated against them in housing, education, voting, employment, medical care, and even daily errands. Throughout my tour of the Alabama Civil Rights Trail, organized by the state Department of Tourism, I was able to feel the influence of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., listening to recordings of his speeches and his leadership.
The Alabama Civil Rights Trail was established in 2004 under the leadership of Lee Sentell, the nation’s longest-serving state tourism director. This paved the way for understanding the political and humanitarian issues that put civil rights at the forefront of history. The trail highlights more than 30 churches, schools, museums and sites that have been instrumental in the achievements of this campaign.
In 2018, the National Park Service expanded the trail by launching the US Civil Rights Network, covering 14 states with over 135 sites and counting. Their theme, “What Happened Here Changed the World” truly represents the efforts of those who have come together so that racial equality can rule the nation.
Visiting these sites created an unforgettable emotional connection to civil rights history. Here is a recap of some of the sites that moved me to tears.
I was hosted by the Alabama State Department of Tourism. All opinions are mine.
1. Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston
In 1961, a brave group of interracial Freedom Riders set out to test whether the buses complied with the United States Supreme Court’s decision to abolish segregation in interstate travel. They left Washington DC and headed for New Orleans. At the Anniston stop, they were met by a Ku Klux Klan mob who threw rocks at the bus, smashed windows and punctured tires. About 6 miles from town the bus had to stop and someone threw flaming rags into the bus causing it to explode. Suffocating and out of breath, the Freedom Riders got off the bus and were beaten until the highway patrol fired warning shots and the crowd dispersed.
While the bus station is currently closed, you can see the mural and historical markers here. In addition, interpretive signs and a memorial park at the bus fire site are in the works. I was appalled to learn that the site was vandalized during construction and a rather large Confederate flag is displayed just across the street, which made me think about things that didn’t have not changed.
2. 16and St Baptist Church in Birmingham
Opened in 1883, the historic 16and Bethel Street Baptist Church served as the organizational headquarters for African Americans fighting racism in the city under the leadership of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. It was a refuge, a sanctuary for the community. On September 15, 1963, the Ku Klux Klan planted 19 sticks of dynamite which exploded, killing four young girls and injuring many others. We have seen where the bombing happened and the consequences of this senseless tragedy. We caught up with Lisa McNair, sister of Denise McNair who died in the bombing, and talked about her new book, Dear Denise: Letters to the Sister I Never Knew. Lisa is one of the “experience givers” (see below) who will add meaning to your visit.
Look across the street to Kelly Ingram Park where many civil rights rallies have been held. See the sculptures that show the reality of police searches and fire hoses that were fired at protesters to enhance your understanding of history.
Pro Tip: September 2023 will mark the 60and anniversary of the bombing. See birminghamal.org for more information.
3. The Monroeville Courtroom
Author Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville and wrote the classic American novel Kill a mockingbird in 1960. The main character, Atticus Finch, was modeled after Lee’s father, attorney AC Lee, and the story was based on a real event and trial. The Monroeville Courthouse served as a prototype for the eventual film set. Every April and May, the Mockingbird Players host a live theatrical presentation, recounting how Atticus Finch defended a black man accused of attempted rape. I spent a sunny afternoon outside watching the first act of the novel come to life on the lawn. The second act continues upstairs in the courtroom. At each performance, they select members of the public to serve on the jury. I got to sit in the grand jury box, which made me feel like I was actually an actor in the play. Throughout the year, the County Courthouse is open for tours of America’s most famous courtroom.
Pro Tip: Order your tickets here as soon as they become available as the season tends to sell out.
4. Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery
In 1955, a tiny little woman, Rosa Parks, resisted segregation by standing up and not giving up her seat on the bus to a white man. Led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who preached on nonviolent confrontation, the community came together and people with cars drove others to work or walked. But they didn’t use the bus. Parks’ actions prompted the Montgomery Bus Boycott, shutting down the transportation system for over a year. After the boycott ended, he brought racial integration to the bus system and international attention on civil rights.
Opened in 2021, the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University uses interactive technology to tell its story, even creating a recreation of what really happened on the bus. I came away inspired that one person can really make a difference!
5. Equal Justice Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration, also in Montgomery
Located on the site of a former cotton warehouse where slaves were forced to work, this storytelling museum uses interactive media, sculptures, cutting-edge technology and exhibits to tell the story. What touched me the most were the recorded prison conversations I overheard with incarcerated people who have been wrongfully convicted, wrongfully convicted, or treated unfairly in the American justice system. Here you will trace the history of the slave trade, lynching and racial inequality in the Jim Crow South.
After my visit, I had the opportunity to sit in the reflection space and reflect on the images of racial injustice and the story of the struggle I had just experienced. I have marveled at those who have taken the opportunity to influence the world and felt inspired to do the same.
6. Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma
How fitting that this bridge, named in honor of a Confederate general, is the setting for this pivotal moment in history. On March 7, 1965, a heroic group of 600 ordinary people and young infantrymen attempted to cross the bridge en route to the state capitol of Montgomery to support the right to vote. They were driven back by mounted police with batons and then imprisoned in an incident that would forever be known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. It took them two more tries and five days to complete the 54-mile march to Montgomery, led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis. When they arrived at the State Capitol, Governor George Wallace would not allow them to climb the steps. But in August, the National Suffrage Act was passed, making history. I walked in the footsteps of history across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. The irony didn’t escape me as it was the same day that Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed as the first African American woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court.
Pro Tip: You can follow the actual route of the walk with an interactive map from the National Park Service here. In front of the State Capitol, hundreds of footprints were painted on the crosswalk to commemorate the March.
7. Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, Tuskegee
Before 1940, African Americans were not allowed to serve in the US Army Air Corps. However, a group of proud African Americans wanted to help fight in World War II and learned to fly fighter jets at Moton Field before flying more than 15,000 missions in Europe and North Africa, winning over of 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses. Although the field closed its doors in 1946, their exceptional performances made it possible to finally integrate the American army. I learned from National Park Service rangers that it was not just the pilots, but the engineers, mechanics, nurses, and other support staff who kept the planes in the air.
Experience Givers on the Civil Rights Trail
Throughout my journey, I heard presentations from those who were active in the civil rights movement.
I heard civil rights activist JoAnne Bland talk about how racial discrimination affected her. In downtown Selma, Joanne wanted to enjoy an ice cream at the Carter Drugs soda fountain, but it was for “whites only.” All she wanted to do was spin around the stool and lick a cool treat. She mourned her mother and couldn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to join the party. The pharmacy later caught fire and was rebuilt without its iconic soda fountain. Joanne participated in the “Bloody Sunday” march and other suffrage struggles. Meet Joanne and learn about her journey as a civil rights leader on a private tour with Journeys for the Soul.
Hearing from legendary civil rights lawyer Fred Gray, who defended MLK, Rosa Parks and the victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, was like seeing an American treasure. Its main goal was to end discrimination in education with “a commitment to destroying all that segregation stood for”. He said: “Racism and inequality are just bad. We must continue to be vigilant because it still exists in this country today.
To learn more, visit the Alabama Department of Tourism’s Civil Rights Legacy page, and for more stories about the Civil Rights Trail, see Tennessee Adds Two New Sites To The US Civil Rights Trail and Popular Kansas City Attraction Added To US Civil Rights Trail.