The Civil Rights Trail covers dozens of sites in the South. I’ll be taking you through some must-see sights in Alabama that will provide you with a glimpse of the earliest days of the civil rights movement and some of its bloodiest. You can break up the itinerary into several three-day weekends in Birmingham and Montgomery that include side visits to Tuscaloosa and Selma.
It’s best to go in the spring or fall, avoiding the hot humid summer and what can be a chilly winter. Note that many of the venues are closed on Mondays and some on Sundays.
Anniston To Birmingham: The Start Of Your Journey
About an hour outside of Birmingham is where Freedom Riders were attacked in 1961 by a mob that firebombed their commercial bus. The Riders were trying to integrate local Greyhound and Trailways bus stations by riding the buses into towns in the South. There is a marker in Anniston (about an hour east of Birmingham) at the site of the old bus station where the Riders eventually got on a second bus bound for Birmingham, and Anniston is where your civil rights road trip begins.
Once you’ve seen the marker and made it to Birmingham, where some of the earliest nationally covered protests began in the early 1960s, visit the 16th Avenue Baptist Church. It was firebombed in 1963 when services were in session. Four girls were killed in the ensuing fire. Today, the church remains open for worship and you may tour the building and learn the history of its place in the advancement of civil rights.
Birmingham also is home to the Civil Rights Institute. One of the more notable exhibits are the jail cell doors that imprisoned Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. It was behind those doors that he wrote his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail in response to criticism of his Birmingham Campaign for civil rights.
Finally, during your multi-day visit in Birmingham, you will want to visit Kelly Ingram Park (historically known as West Park) downtown. People gathered there for marches and protests. Today, it is filled with beautiful sculptures commemorating the movement and is an idyllic and tranquil outdoor space. A block from the park you can taste some fine barbecue at Mrs. B’s on Fourth. Or head over to the Five Points South Neighborhood, where you can find numerous upscale restaurants including the top-rated Highland’s Bar and Grill, which serves superior American cooking and wine.
Take A Side Trip To Tuscaloosa For Some History
An hour west of Birmingham you’ll find yourself in Tuscaloosa on the Black Warrior River. It is home to the University of Alabama, which dominates the city. In 1963, then Governor George Wallace famously stood in the schoolhouse doors at the University. He vowed to keep the institution segregated by symbolically blocking entrance to two African-American students who tried to enroll and attend classes there. Today, you can visit the Coach Bear Bryant Museum on campus.
Visit great recreational sites in Tuscaloosa along the waterways, including Lake Nicol and the Deerlick Creek Recreation Area to round out your day.
Spend A Few Days In Montgomery, The Cradle Of The Confederacy And Civil Rights
Ninety minutes south of Birmingham is Montgomery, a city of contrasts. It is where the Confederacy began and where Rosa Parks made her stand, fueling the infamous Bus Boycott. There are numerous Civil War historical sites throughout the city. It was the epicenter of the domestic slave trade. Visiting as part of your civil rights road trip will be a tumultuous experience that requires several days to digest.
Start At The Old Capitol And Wander The Waterfront
The Confederacy was created at the Old State Capitol of Alabama in the Senate chambers. You can tour the building, including the legislative chambers, at your leisure. Across the street is the first White House of the Confederacy, which housed Jefferson Davis before the capitol moved to Richmond, Virginia. A few blocks from the capitol building are the old railroad depot buildings. These rails brought slaves into Montgomery from the East Coast, making the city the domestic slave trade capitol. Markers point out the historical significance as you walk a few blocks down Commerce Street from the railroad depot to the slave market auction site. Now it’s the site of a fountain with sculptures of children. It sits in the direct eyeline of the Old Capitol building, which provides a symmetry of history.
While visiting the railroad depot area you can take a short walk to Riverfront Park for a nice respite, or walk a couple of blocks and visit the old Confederate prison that adjoins the minor league baseball park. In the same direction up Tallapoosa Street you can drink and have a meal in the Alley Entertainment District. There you will find Montgomery’s number one restaurant, Central. The Alley is housed between and within several historic buildings on the National Register.
If You Have Limited Time, These Are Your Must-See Places
If you don’t have much time in Montgomery, prioritize seeing and experiencing the powerful stories of the Legacy Museum and the Peace and Justice Memorial. They are iconic spaces that will leave you with a rich understanding of the history and importance of civil rights in our country. The Legacy Museum is in an unassuming building around the corner from The Alley. It actually sits in what was the Montgomery slave warehouse, where slaves were kept upon arrival to the city and before they went to the auction site just a few blocks away. You will want to carve out time to see and experience this interactive space and then schedule time to unwind from the experience. It alone is worth a trip to Montgomery.
The companion site to the museum is the Peace and Justice Memorial. A free shuttle will take you from the museum to the memorial and back again. The outdoor memorial chronicles Americans who were lynched during the fight for civil rights after emancipation. It is immediately recognizable and is breathtaking in its magnitude. Give yourself plenty of time to wander through the memorial.
With An Extra Day, Visit These Additional Montgomery Sites
There are several other noteworthy sites to visit in Montgomery including the Rosa Parks Museum and the Freedom Rides Museum. Both are filled with significant history, include interactive exhibits, and give visitors unique insights into the events of the days they chronicle. They are within walking distance of each other and each has tours and gift shops. The Rosa Parks Museum has a replica bus that is a working diorama of her protest and arrest. In the children’s wing of the museum, there is a bus you can board and sit in her seat.
At the Freedom Rides Museum there are living audio histories from the remaining riders, telling in their own words the stories of their experiences. The museum is in the old Greyhound bus terminal where John Lewis and others were beaten for their brazenness in violating strict segregation laws. Stop in for lunch and some Southern classics at Cahawba House, just a short walk from the Parks Museum.
Follow The National Historic Trail From Montgomery To Selma
You can make a great day trip from your base in Montgomery to Selma, which is just under an hour away. Trace the route taken by the famous voting rights marchers. As you drive over the Edmund Pettus Bridge leaving downtown Selma, you’ll see the view the marchers saw on Bloody Sunday. Before them was a phalanx of Alabama troopers and police officers equipped with batons and truncheons, and some on horseback. Undeterred, John Lewis, then a young civil rights activist and Freedom Rider from Nashville, led the group down the bridge and was one of the first to be brutally beaten. People died in the ensuing days until a deal was struck to allow the marchers to hike the 50 miles to Montgomery where they rallied on the steps of the Old Capitol across from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
There are two excellent civil rights sites to visit in this area, both hosted by the National Park Service. One is at the foot of the bridge in Selma, and the other is in Lowndes County, halfway between Selma and Montgomery, where the marchers camped one night. Both these sites have interactive presentations of history. The old downtown, near the bridge, is much the same as it was when the event happened. There are places near the bridge to sit and reflect on history or walk down to the Alabama River and enjoy nature.