Take a Civil Rights Tour of Montgomery, AL

Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, AlabamaA view of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.
Steven Frame/Dreamstime

Tragedy and triumph take center stage in one of America’s most important historical destinations.

Montgomery, Alabama, has been a flashpoint of Civil Rights activity since the movement’s beginnings in the 1950s. Montgomery is the city where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, where a young pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. helped lead the subsequent long (and ultimately successful) bus boycott, and where allies known as Freedom Riders arrived via buses from across the U.S. to march with protesters.

When the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery in April, we decided to drive the four hours south from our home in Nashville to see it and some of the other important Civil Rights sites there.

NATIONAL MEMORIAL FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE & THE LEGACY MUSEUM

Sometimes called the “Lynching Memorial,” the National Memorial for Peace and Justice pays tribute to the thousands of African Americans who were murdered by white supremacists over the decades. A spiraling walkway leads us past hundreds of huge metal obelisks hanging from the ceiling; each one bears the name of a county, and the names of those who were murdered there. A few counties have just a handful of victims’ names; many have dozens.

The path gradually descends as it proceeds, until we’re looking up at the hanging objects and they become an all-too-evident representation of the horrifying murders that they memorialize. This is a somber and powerful place to reflect on some of the darkest moments of American history.

The Legacy Museum is set in a downtown building that was once a literal warehouse for slaves. It outlines the grim path that U.S. policies have laid out, showing a direct connection from enslavement to Jim Crow laws to mass incarceration. (museumandmemorial.eji.org)

REMEMBERING THE BUS BOYCOTT

Nearby, the Rosa Parks Museum remembers the famous defiance that prompted the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott. The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached for six years, was the site of many meetings in planning the boycott, as was the Dexter Parsonage, where the King family lived. This house has been restored to its 1950s condition, including furniture and many personal items used by the family. Also preserved is the damage done when a bomb exploded on the front porch. Downtown’s Civil Rights Memorial pays tribute to the people who lost their lives in the struggle for equality and bears one of Dr. King’s favorite quotes, “... until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

FREEDOM RIDES MUSEUM

In the former Greyhound bus station downtown, the Freedom Rides Museum memorializes the bravery and sacrifices of the young men and women who faced violent, racist mobs hell-bent on maintaining segregation in the south. At this and at all the sites we visited, we found the docents to be welcoming and engaging, eager to answer questions and impart their considerable knowledge to curious visitors.

A TASTE OF AFRICAN AMERICAN CUISINE

When it came to eating in Montgomery, we decided to spend our money in black-owned businesses in town. A few blocks west of the Freedom Rides Museum, Margaret Boyd’s Mrs. B’s Home Cooking is a classic southern meat-and-three restaurant, whose sides (like cabbage or collard greens) are cooked with smoked turkey drippings rather than lard. It’s also another “museum”: The walls are plastered with family, military, and celebrity photos, as well as framed press articles of momentous local events. A few blocks southeast of town, Monique Williams’ Cheesecake Empori-yum offers delicious desserts and also, unusually, eggrolls in inventive flavors like “Soulfood” and “Cajun seafood”. Just around the corner from the Rosa Parks Museum is the Savanna Tropical Rotisserie Cafe, where a wood-smoke grill sits out on the sidewalk, enticing customers to partake of authentic Caribbean/African cuisine like savory goat curry or delicious Jamaican jerk chicken.

HISTORIC LODGING

There is more to see in Montgomery than can be covered in a single day. We spent the night at a fantastic Airbnb rental, The Treehouse at Cottage Hill, a full upstairs apartment in an elegant, historic 1892 home in a quiet neighborhood, just three blocks away from the Peace and Justice Memorial.

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