Alabama's Civil War and civil rights sites

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Glenda C. Booth

Montgomery, Alabama, claims to be the birthplace of both the Civil War and the civil rights movement — events 100 years apart, but not unrelated.

Morgan Berney, with the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce Convention and Visitor Bureau, told me: "You should come here to learn the history of the important things that happened here." So I set out to do just that.

And it's true: Here in the heart of Dixie, visitors can explore well-preserved buildings and homes and even reenact historic events in a part of the country where some still even debate what to call the 1861-1865 conflict — the Civil War, the War of Southern Independence or the War of Northern Aggression?

On the steps of the state capitol last March, 500 local students sang freedom songs at a rousing civil rights rally. Three weeks earlier, on the same steps, more than 1,000 people in genteel period finery re-enacted Confederate President Jefferson Davis's 1861 inauguration, celebrating Montgomery as the first capital of the Confederacy.

Indeed, a trip across central Alabama is an expedition through the state's schizophrenic past and a candid look at Alabama's beauty marks and blemishes. The sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War is an opportune time to explore Alabama's multiple layers.

The capital's contrasts

The 1851 state capitol building on "goat hill" — so called because of its original grazing denizens — dominates the center of Montgomery. Tour guides point out that segregationist Governor George Wallace and his wife Lurlene, remembered inside in statues and portraits, served 17 years.

Murals under the dome trace the state's history. The old Senate Chamber, restored to the way it appeared in 1861, is where delegates from seceding southern states formed the Confederate States of America.

A refreshing break from the reminders of strife is the sweet statue of Helen Keller as a child at her family's water pump the moment she first understood language.

Nearby is the fully-restored first White House of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis's home, as it looked mid-19th century, showcasing personal items, like the family Bible.

Fast forward to the 1960s civil rights era at the red brick Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, just down the block from the capitol, where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached self-empowerment and civil disobedience.

The words of Rev. Vernon Johns in the basement museum's video are a chilling reminder of the hostilities of that period. "It's safe to murder Negroes in Montgomery," he says in the film.

The Dexter Parsonage Museum is the homey, seven-room, white frame house with the Kings' starched doilies, rotary telephone and chenille bedspreads, depicting how the King family lived from 1954 to 1960. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded in the dining room.

The front porch bears a crater blasted by a stick of dynamite that blew while Coretta Scott King and her baby were home. Sitting in the home's kitchen, I felt like MLK could walk in any minute.

Another must-see is the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, commemorating "the event that changed the world" — the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. There's a video re-enactment of seamstress Rosa Parks's refusal to move to the back of the bus.

She later explained, "I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed." The museum has a replica of the bus and a film telling the story of the 381-day boycott.

These excellent museums tell the civil rights story and show how activists braved cursing and spitting crowds, courageous children integrated public schools, and police unleashed tear gas and billy clubs on marchers.

A black granite Civil Rights Memorial honors those who died. Designer Maya Lin has explained, "This is not a monument to suffering; it is a memorial to hope."

Of course, visitors can also enjoy more typically tourist attractions here as well, including the Hank Williams Museum (the largest collection of Williams memorabilia worldwide), a cruise on the Harriett II riverboat, or a night out with the Biscuits — an AA baseball affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays.

And between museums, you can "go southern" and savor fried green tomatoes, homestyle grits and banana pudding. Residents will greet you with friendly "hi y'alls" and warm southern hospitality.

An equal rights side note. In the state archives, I spotted a plaque that read, "To Our Heroic Women of the Sixties." I thought, well, Alabama is honoring the women of the 1960s civil rights movement. But I had jumped to the wrong conclusion. The plaque was dedicated to the women of the 1860s and was sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy!

Still marching in Selma

Selma, 45 miles west of Montgomery and the birthplace of the White Citizens Council, comes across initially as a weary, rundown town. But probing deeper, you'll find something very significant about the place.

During the Civil War, the town's arsenal and foundry next to the Alabama River were Union targets. But Selma is best known for the 1965 voting rights march.

When police shot 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson in Marion, Ala., people were inspired to march to Montgomery and present their demands to Gov. Wallace. Led by Rev. King and others, as 600 people crossed Selma's arched Edmund Pettus Bridge, the sheriff's mounted deputies and a "sea of blue" state troopers sent by Wallace attacked the marchers with nightsticks and tear gas.

Every year, during the first weekend in March, the town perks up with a bridge-crossing jubilee, featuring a parade, rallies, music, a unity breakfast and many notables. On Sunday morning of jubilee weekend, commemorative church services are held around town.

I was welcomed to a two-hour service, led by Dr. Frederick Douglas Reece, who invited Rev. King to Selma in 1965 and was confronted by the police multiple times.

He recounted that as a young black boy he had one pair of pants and took a sweet potato to his all-black school for lunch. He commented that today in Selma, "All people are recognized of the same rank."

While in Selma, be sure to visit the modest but informative National Voting Rights Museum, spotlighting the movement's heroes and heroines. One exhibit quotes activist Wendell Paris, who said, "Selma was a real hellhole" and called the 1960s "absolute apartheid." The Old Depot Museum has artifacts from both the Civil War and voting rights eras.

The National Park Service's Lowndes County Interpretive Center east of town recalls the 54-mile march on Jefferson Davis Highway to Montgomery, which resulted in President Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed literacy tests and poll taxes.

Proud Tuskegee

Tuskegee, about 85 miles east of Selma, brings back an earlier but notable time. The center of the national historic site is the Tuskegee Institute, a college founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington, the determined former slave who sought to give blacks education, work skills and opportunity. Here we'll "do some common things uncommonly well," he said.

The Oaks is Washington's elegant 1899 home built by students. The Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center has exhibits on the civil rights struggle over two centuries and on the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study.

Also in Tuskegee, the Carver Museum highlights George Washington Carver's scientific research on peanuts, sweet potatoes and other crops, techniques that revolutionized agriculture. Scientists here collaborated with the National Air and Space Administration in the 1980s to grow plants without soil on space missions.

Worth a visit is the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field, where legendary black airmen defied racial stereotypes and set the stage for desegregating the military.

At the Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee I attended in March, one of the women active in the 1960s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee said, "We should not bury the past, but we should build on what happened here."

Alabama is doing it.

If you go

The least expensive roundtrip flights to Montgomery start at $318 on US Airways and $327 on Delta in mid-November from BWI Marshall Airport.

The state tourism agency at www.Alabama.travel provides information on attractions and itineraries like the Civil Rights Trail and history tours.

To get started in Montgomery, visit http://visitingmontgomery.com, call (334) 261-1100 or stop in the visitors' center at 300 Water Street.

From the centrally-located Hampton Inn (rates start at $89 per night), you can walk to most major sites. Across the street, Wintzell's Oyster House is noisy, but has "killa" shrimp, baked crawfish pie and gator tail. Motto: "I got fried, stewed and nude at Wintzell's."

The House Restaurant touts "local grits with shrimp" and fried green tomatoes.

In Selma, check with the Welcome Center, 132 Broad St., (www.selmaalabama.com) for information.

For lodging, the historic 1838 St. James Hotel (www.historic-hotels-lodges.com/saint-james-hotel.htm, 334-872-3234) is the only downtown choice and a good one, perched atop the Alabama River in the historic district, exuding antebellum charm. Rates start at $110 per night. Try shrimp hush puppies and seafood gumbo in the hotel restaurant.

In Tuskegee, the Kellogg Hotel (www.tuskegeekelloggcenter.com, 334-727-3000) on the university campus provides southern hospitality. Rooms start at $99 a night.