For years I’ve been contemplating writing a post on civil rights sites in Alabama. But I was scared. I’m still scared. Scared to face a reconciliation of a place that I love with a dark past (and sometimes present). Scared what people would say. Scared to be a white person writing about race relations. But, nonetheless, I am compelled to share my story and I hope that it inspires you to visit Alabama, the cradle of the civil rights movement, and learn more about United States history.
“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”
A forward on my own experience growing up in Alabama
The south, specifically, Alabama, holds a deep and turbulent place in my heart. Most memories are idyllic, filled with adolescent laughter, sitting around a bonfire in the middle of a field, gazing at the star-filled sky, and jumping in lakes after a day of “muddin”. Then there are the memories of going to the movies with my boyfriend, a person of color, holding his hand as we walked in, and getting stares from the older couples. I can close my eyes and hear my friend call his black lab over by the dog’s name, “N*****”. Saying it nonchalantly as if he’s bringing me into the joke while I uncomfortable muttered under my breath that “he shouldn’t name his dog that.”
I attended the University of Alabama from 2002-2006, and during that time, the Schoolhouse Doors at Foster Auditorium, where history was forever changed when James Hood and Viviane Malone registered for classes and desegregated the University, had a tiny plaque marking this momentous moment in history, accompanied by a dilapidated building that was locked up and fading away. In 2011, long overdue, the Schoolhouse Doors were rightfully converted into a landmark, honoring the first black students to attend the University.
Looking back, I recognize that my youth was surrounded by overt and casual racism. I didn’t have the words nor the gumption back then to express how this racism made me feel. I still choke over my words today when I try to express my own experiences. But I have learned one thing—and that’s to listen to people of color, to amplify their voices if I can, and to recognize their contributions to our country even when history tries to forget them. Heck, we wouldn’t even have a country had it not been built off of the backs of non-white people—literally. And that brings me to why I encourage you to visit the following civil rights sites in Alabama. To honor those people who have sacrificed so much for the United States.
5 Historical Civil Rights Sites to Visit in Alabama
1. National Memorial to Peace and Justice
To be from the south, and more importantly, to be an American citizen, one must face our past, even if we weren’t there to witness it. In 2018, Montgomery, Alabama, saw the opening of the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, the first public memorial dedicated to victims of slavery, lynching, and racial terror in the United States. The new Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice documents more than 4,000 victims of lynching from 1877 to 1950, public killings that have been largely ignored and publicly unacknowledged. Until now.
I have seen the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Dachau Holocaust Memorial in Munich, Germany. The power of those spaces—each of which became sort of a magnet for everyone who visited that city—was very influential. Thanks to lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson, we now have a cultural place in America that presents the history of racial inequality in such a way that it motivates people to say, “Never again.” The sculptures depict the brutality of slavery and try to express the inhumanity of that institution while giving voice to the dignity of those who were enslaved. You won’t be able to go through the memorial without your stomach caught in your throat and tears welling in your eyes— I have tears right now as I write this— but it’s important that you go, that you bear witness.
2. Rosa Parks Museum
Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, was home to two of the movement’s most well-known activists. A young reverend from Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Jr., entered the public spotlight in 1956 after Rosa Parks, a seamstress and lifelong activist, refused to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger. At the Rosa Parks Museum, located in Troy at the site of her arrest, interactive exhibits show how that moment of defiance sparked the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first major confrontation of the modern civil rights movement.
3. Dexter Parsonage Museum
In Montgomery, you can visit Dr. King’s carefully preserved home, the Dexter Parsonage Museum. This museum takes visitors back to the civil rights era when people of color were just fighting to have a seat at the same table as any white person. It is located at the rear of the museum is a magnolia tree-lined garden, meant for reflecting on turbulent times.
4. The Freedom Rides Museum
The Freedom Rides Museum preserves the Greyhound Bus station where young protesters were attacked in 1961 as they traveled across the South to fight the continued segregation of interstate transportation. Nearby, there’s the Montgomery state capitol, where King addressed thousands after the 54-mile voting-rights march from Selma.
5. National Historic Trail – March to Selma
From Montgomery, it’s simple to drive the National Historic Trail that retraces the route from Selma. At the halfway point, a visitor center explains how the denial of voting rights and the police shooting of civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson prompted the now famous protest. From there, it’s a 25-minute drive to Selma, site of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where marchers, including current U.S. Representative John Lewis, were beaten by police on what became known as Bloody Sunday. It is worth watching the film, Selma, before visiting this reverent site.
White people have made it difficult to talk about race and racial inequality in this country. It’s almost considered impolite or disruptive because it is uncomfortable. These sites lift the burden that is created by this forced silence about the African American experience. Ultimately, this is American history—it’s for all Americans to wrestle with this legacy, no matter the discomfort.