The Civil Rights Act of 1964 turns 50 this year, and its impact on the nation’s legal, education, economic and social systems has touched every American. Many of the major events that defined the civil rights movement and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act took place in Alabama. With February designated as Black History Month, Alabamians can choose from among many important civil rights sites to visit that are just a short drive away, or maybe just around the corner:
In Birmingham, the Civil Rights District offers several important sites and activities. The downtown area includes the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum that highlights the civil rights struggles that occurred in the city and across the South. Across the street from the museum stands the city’s most famous civil rights landmark, the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young black girls were killed by a bomb on September 15, 1963. Also in the district is Kelly Ingram Park, the site of civil rights protests that provided some of the most shocking images of the civil rights movement. Statues and sculptures found throughout the park recount events that occurred during the protests. The city’s civil rights trail also begins in the district and was recently extended into several nearby neighborhoods where important civil rights events took place.
A short drive from downtown Birmingham is Greenwood Cemetery, the final resting place of three of four girls killed in the 1963 bombing at the church. A historic marker sits at the corner of the cemetery at University Avenue and Messer Airport Highway.
In Montgomery, you can experience the story of the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” and the Montgomery Bus Boycott at the Rosa Parks Museum. When Rosa Parks refused to give her bus seat to a boarding white passenger in 1955, it marked the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. The museum features a reconstruction of the historic street corner where Parks boarded the bus, a film that introduces the story of the boycott, and other exhibits that take visitors back to the days of segregated Montgomery. The museum is located on the site of the old Empire Theater and on the present-day campus of Troy University at Montgomery. It is part of the university’s campus library and the museum also has a children’s wing, with exhibits geared towards younger generations.
Just a few blocks away is the historic Greyhound Bus Station, where freedom riders were brutally beaten in 1961. It is adjacent to the federal courthouse, site of several important civil rights cases over the years.
The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, also in Montgomery, is where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., served as pastor from 1954 to 1960 and where he began his mission for equal rights. In this National Historic Landmark, you can see the pulpit from which Dr. King preached, and just down the road, you can visit the church parsonage. Visitors can step inside the home where King and his young family lived, a home that was bombed in 1956. The scars from that bombing are still visible on the structure.
Halfway between Montgomery and Selma, the Voting Rights Trail Interpretive Center is located at mile marker 106 on U.S. Highway 80. The National Park Service operates the center that recounts the famous Selma-to-Montgomery March which began on Sunday, March 7, 1965, when roughly 600 civil rights marchers departed the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma heading east to march to Montgomery. The marchers were met only six blocks away at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by state troopers and local sheriff’s deputies who, using tear gas and billy clubs, drove them back to Selma. The day became known as “Bloody Sunday,” and the Edmund Pettus Bridge is one of the most recognized symbols of the Civil Rights Movement. On the east side of the bridge today, a mural and memorial pay tribute to those who marched. The Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church houses mementos from the era.
Old Live Oak Cemetery located in Selma is the final resting place of many former slaves and several prominent Alabamians, including the state’s first black congressman, Benjamin S. Turner, and Rufus King, who served as vice president of the United States in 1853. Turner was a slave before being elected during Reconstruction. He operated the St. James Hotel in Selma during the Civil War when the hotel owner – and Turner’s owner at the time – joined the fight. The hotel, built in 1837, is open to visitors and guests, just steps from the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It is on the list of Historic Hotels of America and is reputed to have hosted the outlaws Frank and Jesse James in 1881. The corner room where the outlaw brothers reportedly slept is said to be haunted.
Mobile Bay has its own unique links to black history. It was destination for the last known slave ship to attempt to bring captives from Africa to the United States. In 1859, the Clotilda transported a cargo of enslaved Africans, numbering between 110 and 160 people. Although the passengers aboard the ship were intended for slavery, they never became slaves because the attempt to smuggle them was illegal and aborted by federal authorities. When freed, the Africans settled at Magazine Point, just north of Mobile, calling their community Africatown. Many descendants of Cudjo Kazoola Lewis, the last survivor of the Clotilde, still reside in Africatown. Lewis died in 1935 at the age of 94. He, along with other survivors from the Clotilda, created the Union Baptist Church, where they are buried today.
Also in Mobile is Hank Aaron Stadium, home to baseball’s minor league Mobile BayBears. Aaron’s childhood home was relocated to the stadium in 2008 and opened as a museum in 2010. The original house was located 2010 Edwards Avenue in Mobile where historic marker notes the site today. Visitors can step inside the home and view hundreds of artifacts and mementos in seven rooms. The Hall of Fame Circle inside the stadium honors Aaron, Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Ozzie Smith – all born in Mobile and inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In Tuskegee, several important moments in black history are recognized. One site not to be missed is the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, where the famous African-American fliers of World War II received their training. The site features exhibits and historic films that tell how a select group of black pilots became some of the most highly respected fighters of the war. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt flew with one of the airmen in 1941 to show her confidence in the training program. Tours are led by national park rangers and begin at the visitors’ center.
The Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site on the campus of Tuskegee University is another must-see. The only historically black university on the National Register of Historic Places, it is the location of the George Washington Carver Museum as well as The Oaks, home of Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington. The Carver Museum features many of the products that Carver, an instructor at Tuskegee Institute for 47 years, developed from peanuts, sweet potatoes and other plants. The Oaks, now a museum operated by the National Park Service, was the social center of Tuskegee Institute, where Washington entertained such notables as Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Howard Taft. The house features furnishings built by the local craftsmen and Tuskegee students. It also has friezes in the parlor and library depicting a famous trip taken by Washington and his wife to Europe.
Learn about more sites across Alabama that played a role in African-American and civil rights history by visiting the official travel site for Alabama. There you’ll also find information about the Alabama Civil Rights Trail and its downloadable app that you can take with you on your explorations of black history in Alabama.