No other state in the country had as much historical impact on the Civil Rights Movement as Alabama. Violence, injustice, and racism were mainstays of life for African Americans who were treated as second-class citizens throughout the South even after slavery was abolished. Jim Crow laws discriminated against them in housing, education, voting, employment, medical care, and even daily shopping. Throughout my tour of the Alabama Civil Rights Trail, hosted by the state’s tourism department, I could feel the influence of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., listening to recordings of his speeches and his leadership.
The Alabama Civil Rights Trail was created in 2004 under the guidance of Lee Sentell, the longest-serving state tourism director in the nation. It paved the way to understand the political and humanitarian issues that forced Civil Rights to the forefront of history. The trail highlights more than 30 churches, schools, museums, and sites that were instrumental in the achievements of this campaign.
In 2018, the National Park Service expanded the trail by launching the U.S. Civil Rights Network, covering 14 states with over 135 sites and more being added. Their theme, “What Happened Here Changed the World” truly represents the efforts of those who rallied so that racial equality could rule the nation.
Visiting these sites created an unforgettable emotional connection to Civil Rights history. Here is a recap of just a few of the sites that moved me to tears.
I was hosted by the Alabama State Tourism Department. All opinions are my own.
1. Freedom Riders National Monument In Anniston
In 1961, a brave group of interracial Freedom Riders set out to test if the buses were complying with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down segregation in interstate travel. They left Washington D.C. and headed to New Orleans. At the Anniston stop, they were met by a mob of Ku Klux Klan who threw rocks at the bus, broke windows, and slashed tires. About 6 miles out of town, the bus had to stop, and someone threw flaming rags into the bus causing it to explode. Choking and gasping for air, the Freedom Riders got off the bus and were beaten until the highway patrol fired warning shots and the mob dispersed.
While the bus station is currently closed, you can see the painted mural and historical markers here. What’s more, interpretive signs and a memorial park at the bus burning site are in the works. I was dismayed to learn that the site has been vandalized during construction and a rather large Confederate flag is displayed right across the street, giving me pause to think about the things that have not changed.
2. 16th Street Baptist Church In Birmingham
Opened in 1883, the historic 16th Street Bethel Baptist Church served as the organizational headquarters for African Americans combating racism in the city under the leadership of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. It was a refuge, a sanctuary for the community. On September 15, 1963, the Ku Klux Klan planted 19 sticks of dynamite that exploded, killing four young girls and injuring many others. We saw where the bombing happened and the aftermath of this senseless tragedy. We met 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 more on them below) who will add meaning to your visit.
Look across the street to Kelly Ingram Park where many civil rights rallies took place. See the sculptures that show the realities of the police dogs and firehoses that were turned on demonstrators to enhance your understanding of the story.
Pro Tip: September 2023 will mark the 60th anniversary of the bombing. Check out birminghamal.org for more information.
3. The Monroeville Courtroom
Author Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville and wrote the classic American novel To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. The main character, Atticus Finch, was modeled after Lee’s father, attorney A.C. Lee, and the story was based on an actual event and trial. The Monroeville Courthouse served as the prototype for the eventual movie set. Every April and May, the Mockingbird Players put on a live theatrical presentation, retelling how Atticus Finch defended a Black man accused of attempted rape. I spent a sunny afternoon outside watching Act One of the novel come to life on the lawn. Act Two continues upstairs in the Courtroom. At every performance, they select audience members to be the jury. I got to sit in the Grand Jury Box, making me feel like I was actually an actor in the play. Throughout the year, the County Courthouse is open for tours of the most famous courtroom in America.
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 small, diminutive woman, Rosa Parks, stood up to segregation by standing down and not giving up her seat on the bus to a white man. Led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who preached about non-violent confrontation, the community rallied together and people with cars drove others to work or walked. But they didn’t use the bus. Parks’s actions caused the Montgomery Bus Boycott, shutting down the transportation system for more than a year. After the boycott ended, it brought racial integration to the bus system and international attention to civil rights.
Opened in 2000, Troy University’s Rosa Parks Museum uses interactive technology to tell her story, even creating a reenactment of what actually happened on the bus. I came away inspired that one person can truly make a difference!
5. Equal Justice Legacy Museum: From Enslavement To Mass Incarceration, Also In Montgomery
Located on the site of a former cotton warehouse where enslaved people were forced to work, this narrative museum uses interactive media, sculpture, cutting-edge technology, and exhibits to tell the story. What impacted me the most were the recorded jail conversations I heard with incarcerated people who were either wrongly condemned, unfairly sentenced, or treated unjustly in the American legal 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 an opportunity to sit in the Reflection Space and think about the images of racial injustice and the history of struggle I had just experienced. I marveled at those who have risen to the occasion to influence the world and felt inspired to do the same.
6. Edmund Pettus Bridge In Selma
How fitting that this bridge, named for a Confederate General, would be the setting for this pivotal moment in history. On March 7, 1965, a heroic group of 600 ordinary people and young foot soldiers tried to cross the bridge on their way to the state capital of Montgomery to support voting rights. They were beaten back by the police on horseback with clubs then jailed in an incident that will be known forever as “Bloody Sunday.” It took them two more tries and five days to complete the 54-mile march to Montgomery, led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis. When they arrived at the State Capitol, Governor George Wallace would not allow them on the steps. But in August, the National Voting Rights Act 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 was not lost on me as it was the same day Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed as the first African American woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Pro Tip: You can follow the actual trail of the march with an interactive map from the National Park Service here. In front of the State Capitol, hundreds of footprints have been 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 U.S. Army Air Corps. However, a group of proud African Americans wanted to help fight in World War II and learned how to navigate combat planes in Moton Field before flying more than 15,000 missions in Europe and North Africa, earning more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses. Although the field shut down in 1946, their outstanding performance helped to finally integrate the U.S. military. I learned from the National Park Service rangers that it wasn’t just the pilots, but the engineers, mechanics, nurses, and other support personnel who kept the planes in the air.
Civil Rights Trail Experience Givers
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 cried to her mother and couldn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to join the fun. Later, the drugstore had a fire, and it was rebuilt without its iconic soda fountain. Joanne took part in the “Bloody Sunday” March and other voting rights struggles. Meet Joanne and learn about her journey as a Civil Rights leader on a private tour with Journeys for the Soul.
Hearing legendary Civil Rights Attorney Fred Gray, who defended MLK, Rosa Parks, and victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, was like seeing an American treasure. His main focus was ending discrimination in education with “a commitment to destroy everything that segregation represented.” He said, “Racism and inequality are simply wrong. We must continue to be vigilant because it still exists in this country today.”
To discover more, visit the Alabama Tourism Department’s Civil Rights Legacy page, and for more stories about the Civil Rights Trail, see Tennessee Adds Two New Sites To The U.S. Civil Rights Trail and Popular Kansas City Attraction Added To U.S. Civil Rights Trail.