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The Right to Know

Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail teaches powerful lessons from a painful part of America’s history.
By Jackie Dishner

We shall overcome. We shall overcome some day.

Those words repeatedly rang out in song during a time of extreme racial injustice in America. This was a time when Southern Ku Klux Klan vigilantes didn’t think twice about bombing churches, setting fires to buses or shooting innocent people just because they were black. Members of Alabama’s law enforcement physically fought with protestors who believed blacks should have the same rights as white Americans.

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In Title: A good place to start Alabama's civil rights tour is at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Alabama Department of Tourism photo

Above: An exhibit at the Lowndes County Interpretive Center lets you experience a civil rights march yourself. Jackie Dishner photo

Below: Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge Alabama Department of Tourism photo

bridge

Too young to remember the history first-hand, I learned that on my first birthday (March 10, 1965), police in Selma, Ala., blocked an entire street to prevent voting rights marches. The historic five-day march from Selma to Montgomery soon followed on March 21.

I recently flew to Birmingham to visit my sister who joined me on a tour of Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail. As we made our way through the interactive exhibits in the museums, stopped at the historic sites and considered the painful past, I remembered the words–We shall overcome. We shall overcome some day–in my head.

As I took pictures and read the venomous racial slurs National Guardsmen yelled out at the civil rights marchers, crossed the same bridge and stood on the same ground where civil rights foot soldiers were taunted and clubbed, and walked through a park with sculptures of jailed children, I had a better understanding of what black Americans had to live with in the era of segregation and the ensuing Civil Rights Movement.

“The belittling, the embarrassment, the shame,” recalled a woman in the Civil Rights Audio Tour offered at the Montgomery Area Visitor Center as she remembered her experiences from the 1960s.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the martyred heroes who helped lead the Civil Rights Movement, and at least 40 others who fought to the death for their victories (Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 to name two) are now memorialized in Alabama. Their names and the rights they stood up for are engraved in a sculpture that faces the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, the state’s capital. Here are a few additional sites and Alabama towns along the state’s Civil Rights Trail.

Begin in Birmingham

Downtown Birmingham is a good place to begin a civil rights tour. Its six-block Civil Rights District is home to three significant sites, all of them on the same block. Included is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that was bombed by the KKK in 1963. Four young girls who were prepping for Sunday school in the bathroom were killed.

Kelly Ingram Park is across from the church, and its Freedom Walk helps give perspective to the fear local police tried to enforce, even when children got involved. As you walk through the park, you’ll see sculptures that depict attacks on demonstrators using dogs and water hoses with sprays powerful enough to break bones, children jailed for participating in protests, and the clergy’s contributions to the movement.

Facing the park is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Inside, you’ll watch an introductory film and then be led to galleries that move you in chronological sequence through the entire Civil Rights Movement. Near the end, you learn about the Freedom Riders, students who rode across the South in Greyhound buses to test bus desegregation laws. A burned-out bus is on display.

Rent an audio tour at the ticket booth of the park ($5) and pick up walking tour maps for the Civil Rights District.

Selma to Montgomery

In 1955, Montgomery seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus. Her arrest led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

Ten years later, Voting Rights Marches began in Selma and continued to Montgomery. Once again, the nation’s eyes were turned to Alabama.

The portion of U.S. Highway 80 from Selma to Montgomery in 1996 was designated a U.S. National Historic Trail. At 54 miles, it is the shortest trail in the National Trail System.

Start in Selma at Brown Chapel AME Church where demonstrators planned and gathered for the march. From here, you can walk or drive to the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute and see actual footprints of the men, women and children who marched (many more than once), risking their lives for the sake of freedom.

More than 50 marchers were hospitalized after police ambushed the crowd on March 7, “Bloody Sunday,” in an attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge and march to the state capital. If you walk across the bridge, imagine what it must have been like to see the sheriff and his men carrying their nightsticks, running toward you from the opposite end of the bridge.

Halfway from Selma to Montgomery, stop at the trail’s Lowndes County Interpretive Center where Tent City was erected. Sharecroppers who were kicked out of their homes for registering to vote lived temporarily on this site in tents. An outdoor walking path with information kiosks tells the story. An exhibit inside depicts life in Tent City.

Just outside Montgomery, take the detour to the City of St. Jude to see the last campsite where marchers slept before heading to the state Capitol. When they arrived on March 25, 1965, state troopers blocked the entrance, so King, who led the group, boldly spoke from a makeshift platform below the Capitol steps. The restored Civil War-era Capitol is open for tours.

Other sites in Montgomery include the:

  • Rosa Parks Museum
  • Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where King preached
  • Civil Rights Memorial & Center
  • Alabama Department of Archives & History, with photos from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as well as a copy of the speech King gave near the Capitol.

Jackie Dishner is a new contributor from Phoenix, Ariz.

Jan/Feb 2011 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

Information on Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail and tours is available by calling (800) ALABAMA (252-2262) or click on the state’s tourism Web site, www.alabama.travel, where you can download the brochure “Alabama Civil Rights Trail” under the Travel Tools heading.

More information is at the Montgomery Area Visitor Center, (800) 240-9452, www.visitingmontgomery.com; and Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 458-8085, http://birminghamal.org.

To visit Alabama, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. Click here for a list of offices to serve you.

Order free information about Alabama found online at http://southern.ai-dsg.com.


Local Black History Month events

Jan. 13–March 27, 2011
Black History Month Exhibit, Fort Smith Museum of History, Fort Smith, Ark. Information: (479) 783-7841

Jan. 17, 2011
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrations in Meridian, Miss., (601-485-1944) and New Iberia, La., (337-369-2395)

 


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