A 3-Day Trip Through Historic Alabama
In Alabama, there's no shortage of respect for the past—from Civil Rights memorials to a timeless recipe for pulled pork.
With the sun setting, Andy and I hurry east to Selma to find a place to stay for the night. I start to get nervous after we pass a series of uninviting motels in strip malls, but then we find the St. James Hotel downtown on the Alabama River. Built in the 1830s, the stately hotel played host to Confederate officers during the Civil War, when Selma was an important arms depot for the South. It was then abandoned for a century before being renovated in 1997. Andy and I can't believe our luck: The hotel looks just as grand as it must have when it first opened, with a wide, wraparound porch, gas lamps in the courtyard, and red-velvet curtains and 12-foot-high ceilings in the rooms.
St. James Hotel
1200 Water Ave., Selma, 334/872-3234, historichotels.org/hotel, from $105
Jesse Owens Memorial Park and Museum
7019 County Rd. 203, Danville, 256/974-3636, jesseowensmuseum.org
Morrisette House, Newbern, 334/624-4483, cadc.auburn.edu/soa/rural-studio
Selma is a relatively sedate place today, but it will be forever remembered as the site of one of the most violent clashes of the civil rights era. On March 7, 1965, a day that became known as Bloody Sunday, about 600 civil rights activists were attacked by police with nightsticks and tear gas as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a march to the capital, Montgomery. Two weeks later, some 3,000 protesters set off from Selma on the same route. This time, the police didn't stop them, and their numbers swelled to 25,000 by the time they reached the capital. Months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There are exhibits detailing the civil rights struggle at the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute, including cards with handwritten, personal stories from the marches. Andy, a history professor, says this is the kind of thing he likes to bring into his class—the voices of people who witnessed, and made, history.
From there, we visit a site from further back in history: the ruins of Cahawba, the state's capital from 1820 to 1826. Cahawba has been deserted since just after the Civil War, when the railroad was diverted away from the town and it suffered a devastating flood. All that remains are dilapidated buildings, brick foundations, and two cemeteries (one for whites, one for blacks). As we wander around, we try to imagine what the glory days were like, when new homes were being built and shoppers filled the streets.
Soon, though, hunger gets the better of us, and we're off to Montgomery for food. Feeling nostalgic, we decide to return to a place where we ate on our drive through the state years ago: Chris' Hot Dogs, a lunch counter from the early 1900s. We order two hot dogs loaded with the works—mustard, onions, sauerkraut, and chili sauce—and watch locals chat with waiters behind the counter. It's evidently still the hot lunch spot in town.
Chris' Hot Dogs
138 Dexter Ave., Montgomery, 334/265-6850, chrishotdogs.com, hot dog combo $6.25
Edmund Pettus Bridge
Rte. 80, Selma
National Voting Rights Museum & Institute
1012 Water Ave., Selma, 334/418-0800, nvrmi.com, $6
County Rd. 2, 334/872-8058, cahawba.com
There are reminders of the civil rights era everywhere in Alabama—especially in the state capital. At the Civil Rights Memorial Center, sculptor Maya Lin has created a poignant monument to those slain in the movement: a circular black-granite slab inscribed with the names of the victims and a timeline of important events. Water bubbles up from the center of the table and flows over the edges. Behind it is a black-granite wall that's engraved with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Presented in such a stark and beautiful way, King's words seem to carry extra weight, a testament to Lin's design.
When we arrive at artist Joe Minter's yard in Birmingham, it initially reminds me of the Ave Maria Grotto, because it's filled with a staggering amount of stuff. But Minter's yard is very different—he has spent 19 years creating a memorial to black history out of found objects such as dolls and toys, scrap metal, wood, and household items. Minter tells us he uses ordinary artifacts that have been discarded in part to symbolize the rejection that many blacks have experienced in their lives. "I want my work to tell the story of a people who have been here 400 years and are still invisible," he says.
Civil Rights Memorial Center
400 Washington Ave., Montgomery, 334/956-8439, splcenter.org/crm, $2
Joe Minter's yard
931 Nassau Ave. SW, Birmingham
FINDING THE WAY
Interstate 65 is the quickest way north from Birmingham, but Highway 31 is a much prettier route. Heading south, the most scenic drives are along secondary roads like Highways 69 and 61 through the countryside. When you hit Highway 80, it's a straight shot east to Montgomery.