Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery were prominently featured in the news during the 1950s and 1960s, because those were the cities in Alabama where many significant civil rights events took place. Now, there are informative parks, museums, churches, memorials and institutes open for the purpose of educating the public to the tragedies and triumphs of those years. The state has made tremendous advances since those years, but, as with all the states in the United States, there is much progress yet to be made.
1. 16th Avenue Baptist Church (Birmingham)
Three major sites in Birmingham are in close enough proximity that it is possible to park once and visit all of them. The 16th Avenue Baptist Church, which is still active today, was a hub of civil rights meetings in the 1960s and the starting point for a number of marches and peaceful protests. It was tragically bombed on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, killing four young girls who were getting ready to participate in the worship service. The bombing was considered an act of terrorism by white supremacists and helped to motivate action by the federal government on civil rights legislation.
2. Kelly Ingram Park (Birmingham)
At the entrance to Kelly Ingram Park, located diagonally across the street from 16th Avenue Baptist Church, you will find a sculpture created by Elizabeth MacQueen. The sculpture, titled Four Spirits, is in memory of the four girls killed in the bombing of the church, and it was dedicated on the fiftieth anniversary of the horrific event. There are 8 other sculptures scattered throughout the 4-acre (1.61 hectares) park graphically portraying conditions and events in the 1960s. An Audio Walking Tour of the park is available at no charge and can be accessed with a mobile phone.
3. Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (Birmingham)
In addition to displays recognizing many Alabama Civil Rights activists, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute portrays the realities of a segregated city in the 1950s. Visitors may view the replica of a Freedom Riders bus and hear over 500 recorded accounts of eyewitnesses to events of the years when the Civil Rights Movement took place. Richard Arrington, Jr. is celebrated at the Institute for being Birmingham’s first black mayor.
The museum is open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Sunday and is closed on Monday.
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4. Edmund Pettus Bridge (Selma)
The road under the Edmund Pettus Bridge forms a steep hill. The marchers of early March, 1965, were full of hope and resolve as they climbed up the hill but struck with a frightening view when they reached the top. Hundreds of armed police and troopers mounted a brutal attack. The issue was voting rights for African Americans. The violent scene was broadcasted across the United States, so that when the march began again about three weeks later, there was far more support. The 54-mile (86.9 km) trek began at the bridge and ended on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. The route is now a National Historic Trail.
5. Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church (Selma)
On March 7, 1965, a day now referred to as Bloody Sunday, the rallying cry for voting rights began to ring out at Brown Chapel A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) Church. Preparations were made, and the marchers began, only to be met with state troopers on horses with tear gas and clubs. Many of the marchers made their way back to the church to seek refuge. In the following weeks, the church was the meeting and planning point for the successful march which occurred later that month. By that time, the march was carefully organized and supported by many celebrities.
6. Lowndes Interpretive Center (Selma)
The Lowndes Interpretive Center located between Selma and Montgomery is dedicated to all of those who made the peaceful march in 1965 to raise awareness regarding voting rights for African Americans. Important exhibits feature the significance and deaths of Jonathan Daniels and Viola Liuzzo, as well as the need for a Tent City that came about when white landowners displaced their black tenants in Lowndes County.
7. Freedom Rides Museum (Montgomery)
The site of the Freedom Rides Museum on South Court Street in downtown Montgomery is in the exact bus station, the Montgomery Greyhound Station, where Freedom Riders were attacked in 1961, and the building has been restored to look exactly as it did at the time. In those days, travel was segregated and definite racial barriers were in place to keep blacks separated from whites. The Freedom Riders were courageous young people, black and white, male and female, who chose to make a stand in order for transportation to be desegregated. They knew a showdown was brewing, and, anticipating violence, they prepared their wills and wrote farewell letters. When they arrived in Montgomery on May 20, 1961, no police protection was present. Instead, they were assaulted with pipes, hammers and baseball bats. None were killed, but several were seriously injured.
8. Troy University's Rosa Parks Museum (Montgomery)
Troy University’s Rosa Parks Museum is located at the exact spot where Mrs. Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Her act of defiance ignited a response that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted from December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956. In addition to many exhibits about Mrs. Parks’ life, the museum also has an entertaining section for children.
When Mrs. Parks died in 2005, she became the first woman to lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.
The museum is open Monday through Saturday and by appointment only on Sunday.
9. Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (Montgomery)
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church is located on Dexter Avenue in downtown Montgomery, within sight of the Alabama State Capitol building. Martin Luther King, Jr. was pastor of the church from 1954 until 1960, and the building has been preserved to look exactly as it did when he preached from its pulpit. The church was an important meeting hub for the planning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Tours of the church and the parsonage are normally conducted Tuesday through Saturday beginning at 10:00 a.m. and afterwards every hour on the hour, but a call ahead of time to confirm is advised. It is assumed that tours will resume once the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. The parsonage housed 12 pastors and their families between 1920 and 1992. It has been restored to look as it did when Dr. King and his family lived there.
10. National Memorial for Peace and Justice (Montgomery)
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is also referred to as the National Lynching Memorial. It was opened to the public in April of 2018, and has already been visited by thousands. There were 4,400 lynchings of black people documented between 1877 and 1950, but the Equal Justice Initiative has identified 800 more. These lynchings were not confined to states in the South but occurred throughout the country, and they were egregious acts of terrorism and horror.
The Legacy Museum on Coosa Street in Montgomery is connected thematically to the Memorial and provides even more information and context. Both the Memorial and Legacy Museum are graphic in content, so likely they would be best suited for ages 13 and over.
Jars of dirt taken from the many lynching sites and labeled with names and dates create a particularly disturbing display.
Learn from the mistakes of the past in order to avoid repeating them
It is important to understand the mistakes made in the past, and a good way to do that is to visit as many sites as you can along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. Alabama has 10 of them concentrated within 150 miles or so. Start in the middle of the state in Birmingham and work your way south to Montgomery, detouring to Selma. By visiting these 10 sites, your understanding will increase as well as your appreciation for the bravery of those who blazed the trail.
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