We decided to spend a week in Alabama traveling the Civil Rights Trail. It’s been on our bucket list for a long time. It was May of 2019. We researched, plotted miles, sites we wanted to see, etc. Most of our research was found at the comprehensive site civilrightstrail.com. What follows is our trail through Alabama and some of the most historic sites on the Civil Rights Trail.
First, we flew to Atlanta to see the Martin Luther King, Jr. sites. I know, not Alabama, but it was our starting point and well worth it.
MLK, Jr. Historic Site & Visitor’s Center – This is run by the National Park Service and is right next to the (New) Ebenezer Baptist Church Horizon Sanctuary and across the street from The King Center and the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Historical Park (35 acres) encompasses the Visitor Center, the King Birth Home, The King Center, the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, and various other historical buildings.
The Visitor Center was our starting point. No admission fees. Run by the National Park Service, this is where you get the tickets for the MLK Jr. Birth Home. Unfortunately, we thought you could just walk in and get the free tickets, but it’s more competitive than that. There are only so many tickets for each tour, and we were too late in the day for ANY time slots! The MLK Jr. Birth Home is a short walk away (1 block), so we set off to at least see where he was born and raised until he was 12 years old. The home was originally that of the family of MLK Jr.’s mother. When she married MLK, Sr. he moved into the home with her family. Three children were born in the home, including MLK, Jr. Both MLK Jr. and MLK Sr. were born Michael but changed their first name to Martin after the Senior traveled to Germany and was inspired by Martin Luther.
The Visitor Center is also a historical museum, and most importantly, they have restrooms. The Center has permanent exhibits as well as changing exhibits. NPS staffs the facility, so it’s a great place to find a park ranger and ask questions. Outside be sure to visit the International World Peace Rose Gardens. Lovely!
The King Center is across the street from the Visitor Center, easily walked. No admission fees. It is spiritual and calming in nature. It is where MLK, Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King are both buried. We spent time just being in the space and reflecting on the Eternal Flame, Freedom Walkway, and Reflecting Pool. Freedom Hall contains exhibits, videos, and always of interest to me – a bookstore. Freedom Hall routinely hosts special events and meetings. There is much to see and absorb here, so be sure to plan enough time.
Ebenezer Baptist Church is where Martin Luther King, Jr. was baptized and ordained. He served as co-pastor with his father from 1960 until his assassination in 1968. His funeral service was held here. No tickets were required for entry, but some areas were off-limits. There was a group of student tours here on the day we arrived, so it was a little loud, but we got the history lesson along with the students, which was cool! Powerful to know you were in the place that so influenced MLK, Jr. In 1974, MLK, Jr.’s mother, Alberta Christine, was murdered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. A man from Ohio believed the Senior King was going to be there that day; he wasn’t, so the man instead shot and killed Alberta Christine as well as Reverend Edward Boykin.
We definitely did not plan enough time in Atlanta. In fact, we did nothing else there except for the above sites, and even then, we did not plan enough time.
After leaving Atlanta, we headed to Anniston, Alabama, site of the 1961 bus burning and the Freedom Riders National Monument. The former Greyhound station in downtown Anniston is now part of the National Park Service. It marks the location where a group of Freedom Riders stopped on their way to Birmingham. It also includes the spot 6 miles away on Old Birmingham Highway where the slashed tires gave out, and the bus was forced to pull over. On May 14, 1961, a bus carrying Freedom Riders stopped in Anniston. A mob, including members of the KKK, attacked the bus and slashed some of the tires. Despite warnings of violence occurring with Freedom Riders, there was no police presence when the bus pulled into the terminal. With eventual police help, the bus was able to leave the station. The mob followed the bus and threw a firebomb into the bus causing it to later explode. These images of the burning bus are some of the most recognizable of the Civil Rights era. I will tell you this was a spooky feeling to drive the route that bus took with the segregationists in pursuit, to stand in the spot where Freedom Riders lay on the grass gasping from the smoke. The site outside of town says there are future plans to develop the site, but I have not been able to find any other information. There are no visitor services at either site, only info panels but still well worth visiting. This roadside panel is near homes, and I will admit that we received some curious looks from people driving by. You have to kind of tromp through a grassy area. One of the homeowners stopped to ask what we were doing and when we told him, he seemed surprised but okay.
Next, we headed to Birmingham, Alabama. I have to admit; this is the part I was most excited about. For me, Birmingham has always seemed to be the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights District is a six-block area recognizing important events in the Civil Rights Movement.
We drove directly to Kelly Ingram Park. We entered from the corner of 17th and 5th, where the Three Ministers Kneeling is located. It’s hard to state how emotional it is to be in this lovely park. Peaceful and beautiful today, this park served as a staging area during the 1960s demonstrations. Many atrocities happened here. There is an audio tour available, but we chose to read the panels at our own pace.
Upon entry, you see the sculpture of Three Ministers Kneeling: John Thomas Porter, Nelson H. Smith, and A.D. King (younger brother of MLK, Jr.). These three ministers led a protest after the arrest of MLK, Jr., and others in 1963. In front of the police, the three ministers knelt in prayer. Their images are intended to represent all African American ministers that played a role during the Civil Rights Movement, not just the three men themselves. In the background, you can see the famed 16th Street Baptist Church.
The circular Freedom Walk begins with the most haunting sculpture of them all – the police dog attacks. I cannot adequately describe the power of this sculpture. It gives me chills to just look at the pictures. Even walking through this on a peaceful day in May 2019, I still felt myself trying to ease out of the dog’s reach. We were talking to a guard at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute who told us the young man represented in the Foot Soldier sculpture below was still alive and down the street at the barbershop if we wanted to go talk to him! We didn’t impose, but in retrospect, I wish we had.
Next on the Freedom Walk was the jail sculpture. It reads: I ain’t afraid of your jail. Children as young as 6 were arrested and jailed for participation in protests. Six. years. old. Jailed.
Next on the Freedom Walk was the water cannon sculpture. Police ordered the fire department to turn their high-pressure hoses on protesters. It was strong enough to strip trees of their bark. Turned on people. Horrifying.
Central to the park is this sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr. Of course, MLK, Jr. was famously jailed in Birmingham for his participation in protests that were prohibited by the state circuit court. He wrote the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” during his time there.
The Four Spirits sculpture at the corner of the park is right across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church. It depicts the four girls killed in the 1963 church bombing: Carol Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson.
The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church occurred on Sunday, September 15, 1963. In the early hours on that date, four members of the Klan planted numerous sticks of dynamite under the steps on the side of the church and near the basement. A group of children was in the basement readying themselves for the choir. One of the bombers called and said “three minutes,” but the bomb exploded less than one minute later. Killed were Carol Denise McNair, age 11, Carole Robertson age 14, Addie Mae Collins age 14, and Cynthia Wesley, age 14. Violence increased in the hours after the bombing. The tragic events this day captured the media’s attention and really helped the world to fully see the life and death struggle for civil rights. No one stood trial for this crime until 1977. Investigators soon zeroed in on four suspects, but no one would talk, and evidence was lacking. The Feds also blocked any charges against the suspects and had their files sealed. In 1971 the new AG of Alabama reopened the case. In 1977 Robert Chambliss was found guilty of the murder of Carol Denise McNair. In 2001 Thomas Edwin Blanton was tried and convicted, Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002. The fourth suspect, Herman Cash, was never charged. Tours are available for a fee.
Directly across the street from the 16th Street Baptist church is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Fee-based but completely worth it. This is a wonderful museum! There is a replica Freedom Riders bus, the actual jail cell door from MLK, Jr.’s time in Birmingham, replica classrooms, and many great documents and timelines.
We spent 2 days in Birmingham before moving on. You need to really take your time here and absorb the history. It was a great experience.
Next, we traveled to Selma, AL. Selma was the center of the voting rights movement in the 1960s that ultimately lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Three marches in support of voting rights began in Selma at the Brown Chapel AME before crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge for the long march to Montgomery. We started our tour of Selma at the Selma Interpretive Center. This welcome center is run by the National Park Service. Small exhibits but there are rangers there to answer questions and help with info.
Brown Chapel AME was hosting an event the day we were there, so we were unable to enter. It is significant in that the Southern Christina Leadership Conference used it for organizational meetings during protests in 1964 and 1965. The marches to Montgomery started here and proceeded to the Edmund Pettis Bridge over the Alabama River. The bridge is named after a Confederate General and Alabama KKK leader. Once the marchers, peaceful and unarmed, crossed the bridge on March 7th, 1965, they were attacked by police and state troopers. Forever after, this event was recognized as Bloody Sunday. Television and newspaper images brought the horror into living rooms – images of an unconscious Amelia Boynton shocked the nation. Dozens were hospitalized or treated for injuries. We actually walked across the bridge to imagine what the marchers saw when they crested the bridge and saw what awaited them.
We visited the Old Depot Museum in Selma, just down the street from the Interpretive Center. It’s an old train depot converted to a museum. Nice Civil Rights Room with some unique artifacts. Fee-based.
The SEMO (Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail) is 50+ miles along Highway 80. We drove it from Selma to Montgomery. Along the way are several markers designating where the marchers spent the night on their way to Montgomery. Also, along the way is a marker to designate the place where civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo was shot and killed by members of the KKK. Viola was a housewife from Michigan who felt passionately about the movement and participated in the marches. She was assisting the movement by shuttling marchers and volunteers between Selma and Montgomery. On March 25, 1965, Viola was returning to Montgomery with 19-year-old African American Leroy Moton. After stopping for gas, they were harassed and pursued by a car with 4 KKK members. She tried to outrun them, but they caught up with her car and shot her twice in the head. Moton survived, but only because he was covered in her blood, and they thought he was dead. The 4 Klansmen were quickly arrested – one of which was an FBI informant.
Our next destination was Montgomery, AL. First on our list was the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center. The memorial was designed by Maya Lin of Vietnam Veterans Memorial fame. It commemorates the names and dates of the civil rights movement. Water rolls across the black granite memorial of names and dates with the inscription: . . . .until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. We did go inside, and there were very nice exhibits there on civil rights, hate groups, and the Wall of Tolerance.
Just around the corner from the Civil Rights Memorial is Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was pastor from 1954 to 1960.
We next went to the part I was really looking forward to – the Rosa Parks Museum. It is downtown on the Troy University campus. The museum sits right beside the street location where Rosa was arrested. On December 1, 1955, Rosa first got on the bus at Court Square but, as the bus filled up, she was asked to vacate the white section. Technically the driver moved the black section marker, making Rosa appear to sit in the white section. Two stops later, she was arrested at the site of this marker. She was booked and spent a day in jail. She was fined $10 and $4 in court costs. Her actions inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycotts that lasted over a year and resulted in the desegregation of the public transit system in 1956.
This marker marks the spot where Rosa Parks was arrested.
This marker marks the bus stop where Rosa Parks boarded the bus.
The actual Rosa Parks bus is at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Someday I hope to visit and see it for myself. FANTASTIC museum. They do a great job with her story. Fee-based.
A short walk from the Court Square bus stop where Rosa Parks boarded the bus are a couple of historical markers documenting Montgomery’s Slave Trade Market. Montgomery was a prominent part of the slave trade in the U.S., at one time having the second-largest slave population in the country. It was the capital of the slave trade in Alabama. Unfortunately, we did not have time to go to the Legacy Museum, which is on the actual site of the slave warehouse. Next trip. We chose the powerful National Museum for Peace and Justice.
National Museum for Peace and Justice is, hands down, the most powerful thing we did on this trip. And that’s saying a lot. It is just unbelievable. Every human being alive should visit this site. Built to acknowledge the victims of lynchings, the Memorial sits on a 6-acre site overlooking Montgomery.
The structure at the center is constructed of over 800 steel hanging columns – 800 to represent each county in the U.S. where a racial lynching occurred. Victim names, states, and counties are engraved on the columns. It is believed that more than 4,400 black men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, or beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/
In some places in the memorial, the steel columns rise from the ground, but as the memorial follows the shape of the landscape, they hang from the ceiling. It is overwhelming in its sheer volume and powerful beyond words. Imagine all the names and locations that are unknown. Thoughts about the terror these people endured stay with you for a long time after visiting this place. This statement from the Museum’s website says it all: “The National Memorial for Peace and Justice provides a sacred space for truth-telling and reflection about racial terrorism and its legacy.” https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial
I LOVED Montgomery. It was my favorite location!
After leaving Montgomery, we headed to Tuskegee, AL, our final civil rights destination. Moton Field was the site where the Army Air Corps conducted military tests to determine if African Americans could be used in air combat during WWII. Not only could they do it, they were wildly successful! Known as Tuskegee Airmen, nearly 1,000 African American aviators trained at Moton Field between 1941 and 1945. These were the first-ever African American aviators in all of the U.S. Armed Forces. This site is run by the National Park Service. There’s a lovely interpretive walk from the parking lot to the Hangar 1 and 2 Museums. The middle picture is a PT-17 Stearman (Hangar 1), the far-right picture is a “Red Tail” P-51 mustang (Hangar 2). (Apologies if my airplane knowledge is mixed up here.) Hangar 1 is the museum that has recreated office spaces from the 1940s. It includes oral history programs and various great exhibits. Hangar 2 is the museum documenting the combat story of the Tuskegee Airmen. Awesome and Free.
The day we were there they were having a small air show, so bonus! We got to see some classic planes and visit vendors where we indulged in some blueberry juice (didn’t know a thing existed!) and some blueberry jam to bring home. In the gift shop, we asked for a local place to eat, and the clerk sheepishly told us if we weren’t afraid to eat at a gas station, then we should go to the Yellow Store. We laughed – being from KC, we know all about food/BBQ from a gas station! So we headed to the Yellow Store, where we got our lunch and ate it on the shores of Lake Tuskegee. I cannot overstate this – it was some of the best food I have ever had. Pure magic is what they put in those sweet potatoes! Classic southern soul food at its best. Fried okra, collard greens, catfish, meatloaf. Did I mention the sweet potatoes?
Next up was Tuskegee University. The Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site is operated by the National Park Service. It’s comprised of the George Washington Carver Museum, The Oaks Home of Booker T. Washington, and the Historic Campus. We were there in late May, so no students were on this lovely campus, which gave us plenty of freedom with parking and sightseeing. However, we were also a few minutes too late for the last Oaks tour of the day, and no students meant no campus tour. Free.
Former slave Lewis Adams was instrumental in the founding of the Tuskegee University. He was assisting a former slave owner with securing the black vote in his reelection, and in exchange, Adams asked for an education institution for his people. In 1881 it happened with a $2000 appropriation authorized by the Alabama legislature. Booker T. Washington was hired as the principal from its inception on July 4, 1881, until his death in 1915. Washington grew the student population to 1,500 students at the time of his death. Many significant contributions come from Tuskegee University and the work of its presidents. Notably: In the 1940s, the Tuskegee Airmen were schooled here, the United Negro College Fund, School of Veterinary Medicine, Tuskegee Veterans Administration Hospital, and many more. https://www.tuskegee.edu/about-us/history-and-mission
The above (center) photo is of the Lifting the Veil statue. It is central to campus and represents Booker T. Washington lifting the veil of ignorance from a former slave, pointing the way to a better life.
The George Washington Carver Museum was our final stop. Carver is perhaps one of the most famous educators, scientists, and inventors ever. He spent much of his young life roaming and getting educated. In 1896 Booker T. Washington succeeded in bringing Carver to the Tuskegee Institute as the Director of Agriculture. He spent the rest of his life studying, teaching, and experimenting. In 1906 he developed the Jesup Wagon, a mobile bus used to teach the surrounding Alabama communities about farming, nutrition, and a vast array of topics. He is best known for developing hundreds of products from peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans. Carver and Booker are buried next to each other on the Tuskegee Institute grounds.
And that concluded our Civil Rights tour of Alabama. I highly recommend this road trip for anyone interested in learning about this important era of our history.
Read more here:
Hope you enjoy,
Laura, Main Library