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Discover the Civil Rights Trail in Alabama USA – in the footsteps of Martin Luther King

US Civil Rights Trail Alabama

I was two years old, when Dr Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, for his work against racial injustice in the USA. During my visit to Alabama, I was shocked to realise that bombings, lynchings and racial segregation in the Southern States of the USA, happened in my own lifetime. It seemed too recent to be true.

Martin Luther King portrait at Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Martin Luther King portrait at Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

The Civil Rights Trail through Alabama and the Deep South, links together many of the important sites in this struggle, reminding us to be vigilant that the injustice of the past does not continue into the future. On my road trip through Alabama, I visited museums, memorials, churches and public spaces in Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery, to see where history was made, in the journey towards racial equality. It’s a journey that continues today.

Civil Rights Trail in Alabama

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery

This was an important and thought provoking element of my trip, where the places and people I met made a strong and lasting impression on me. If you are visiting Alabama I recommend you visit at least some of these places on the Alabama Civil Rights Trail, to understand how Alabama, the Deep South and the USA has been shaped by their legacy.

Visiting Birmingham Alabama – on the Civil Rights trail in Alabama USA

In the early 1960s, the cities of northern Alabama such as Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery were the heartland of the civil rights struggle for racial equality. Birmingham was described by Martin Luther King as “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States” with rigorous segregation of black and white citizens in public and commercial life. The “Jim Crow” laws meant separation in schools, offices, shops and buses, with restrictions in the jobs that black citizens could apply for, lower pay scales and lack of economic opportunity.

Barriers to Equality in Birmingham

Barriers to Equality in Birmingham

Above all the system prevented the registration of black voters, meaning that they could not exercise their democratic rights to vote for change. The Civil Rights campaign in Birmingham gained even more public and media support, through the extreme response to peaceful protests by the police and fire services, under the direction of Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, a vigorous supporter of segregation.

16th St Baptist Church in Birmingham, the target of bombing

The first of the Civil Rights sites I visited in Birmingham was the 16th St Baptist Church. It’s one of the trio of attractions on the same street, together with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park.

This solid red brick church was a centre for planning of the Civil Rights protests in Birmingham, a meeting place for protesters and civil rights activists such as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was here that hundreds of children gathered to hear Dr King speak and receive instructions for the Children’s Crusade, where they conducted peaceful protests of the streets of Birmingham, were arrested and filled up the jails as part of the strategic campaign.

16th St Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

16th St Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

This was also the site of the 16th St Baptist Church bombing on 15 September 1963, when sticks of dynamite planted under the steps of the church by Ku Klux Klan members, exploded just before a church service. Four young girls, who had been in the basement changing into their choir robes, were killed as the bomb went off.

The deaths of Carol Denise McNair (age 11), Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley (all age 14) as well as two teenage boys who were killed shortly after the bombing, brought the spotlight of world publicity onto Birmingham and hastened desegregation in the city. 

Interior of 16th St Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Interior of 16th St Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

You can visit the church to find out more of these events, with tours being available for groups (I happened to join a tour that was taking place). The stained glass window of Jesus was blown out during the explosion, but symbolically the head and face of Jesus remained.

Check out this Birmingham Civil Rights Tour to see the places I mention in this article

Stained glass in 16th St Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Stained glass in 16th St Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

At the back of the church is another striking stained glass window of a black Jesus on the cross, which was created by a Welsh artist John Petts and donated by the people of Wales after the bombing.

Stained glass window in 16th St Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Stained glass window in 16th St Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

Memorial at 16th St Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Memorial at 16th St Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

Outside on the street corner by the church is a memorial to the children who died in the bombing and you’ll also see a beautiful Four Spirits sculpture of the four young girls who were killed, across the road in Kelly Ingram Park.

16th St Baptist Church Website | Civil Rights Trail website | Visit Tues – Fri 10am-3pm and Sat 10am – 1pm. Closed for visits on Sunday and Monday. | Visitors are welcome to join worship on Sunday 11am.

Read more about my trip: 50 things to do in Alabama on a Road Trip USA

Kelly Ingram park Birmingham Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Kelly Ingram park Birmingham Alabama

Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham – sculptures from the civil rights movement

Just across the road from the 16th St Baptist church is the Kelly Ingram Park, which served as an assembly point for protests marches in the 1960s. The park is still used for community gatherings and you can walk around to see sculptures that mark moments from the civil rights struggle.

Kelly Ingram park Birmingham Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Kelly Ingram park Birmingham Alabama

At the park entrance is the Four Spirits sculpture by Birmingham born sculptor Elizabeth MacQueen. It captures the innocent playfulness of the four young girls who were killed in the bombing just across the road. Like many little girls, they sit daydreaming with a book, tying the bow of a dress, calling as if to say “come on, we’re going to be late!“.

Kelly Ingram park Birmingham Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Kelly Ingram park Birmingham Alabama

The girls are watched over by a statue of Martin Luther King Jr and there are more moving sculptures that commemorate the protests as part of the Children’s Crusade of 1963. The use of children as “foot soldiers” in the civil rights protests was a controversial but effective part of the movement.

The sculptures show how dogs were used to intimidate and water cannon were trained on the children, their force so powerful they could lift them off their feet. It was this use of extreme force against both children and adults, that turned public opinion in the USA against the segregation laws.

Check out this Birmingham Civil Rights Tour to see the places I mention in this article

Martin Luther King statue in Kelly Ingram park Birmingham Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Martin Luther King statue in Kelly Ingram park Birmingham Alabama

Under “Project C” – C for Confrontation, children and teenagers were addressed by Martin Luther King and other leaders on how they should protest in a non-violent way. The strategy was that they would be arrested, thus attracting media attention, filling the jails and allowing their parents to avoid the risk of dismissal from jobs and further economic hardship. “I ain’t afraid of your jail” the children in the sculpture proclaim from behind the bars of the jail window.

Kelly Ingram park Birmingham Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Kelly Ingram park Birmingham Alabama

Civil Rights Trail website | National Parks Service website | Kelly Ingram Park located 5th Avenue N & 16th Street, Birmingham, Alabama

Looking for places to eat in Birmingham? Taste the food of Alabama, 20 dishes you’ll want to try!

Sculptures in Kelly Ingram park Birmingham Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Sculptures in Kelly Ingram park Birmingham Alabama

Birmingham Civil Rights institute – a museum dedicated to civil rights history

Another outstanding thing to see in Birmingham’s Civil Rights District, is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), a museum and research organisation dedicated to sharing the civil rights story in a way that promotes dialogue and reconciliation.

I was impressed by the dignified atmosphere of the institute, building on the non-violent protest of the 1960s. The atmosphere avoids seeking to blame, but rather to understand a common past and work together for a better future. Walking up the steps to the institute, my attention was drawn to the pattern of coloured bricks, in different shades of yellow and brown, representing the many different shades of skin colour that mingle in the city. 

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama

My tour of the Birmingham Civil Rights museum began with a video presentation explaining the Civil Rights Movement, after which the screen opened to reveal the exhibition showing the realities of segregation. Two water fountains sit side by side, one for whites, another for coloured. A couple of teenagers enjoy a soda in a cafe while a black girl looks on enviously, knowing she is not allowed to join them there.

Courtyard of Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Courtyard of Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama

On the buses, black customers had a section at the back, while whites rode at the front and schools were completely segregated. There was such an appetite for education from black college students that they were forced to study in shifts to accommodate the numbers.

Check out this guided tour  to see the places I mention in this article

Black and white classrooms at Birmingham Civil Rights Institute Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Black and white classrooms at Birmingham Civil Rights Institute Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Even before the 16th St Baptist Church bombing, anyone who spoke out against segregation might face violent retaliation and with 50 racially motivated bombings from the late 1940s, the city had earned the name of “Bombingham”.

Rosa Parks statue at Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Rosa Parks statue at Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama

Campaigns like the bus boycott in Montgomery were sparked by Rosa Parks and other women, resulting in a legal suit that outlawed the segregated seating. I learned that this protest action was not a random event, but part of a sustained and orchestrated campaign. The participants, respectable women such as Rosa Parks, were carefully selected and supported in their actions.

Martin Luther King portrait at Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Martin Luther King portrait at Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama

The “Project C” protests were planned with a clear strategy, with leaders like Martin Luther King jailed in Birmingham, gaining publicity as he wrote his “Letter from Birmingham jail”, which explained his philosophy of nonviolent direct action.

This Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, Alabama tells an important part of the state and nation’s story and is definitely one you shouldn’t miss.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute Website |Civil Rights Trail website | Adult ticket $15 | Tues-Sat 10am – 5pm Sun 1pm – 5pm

Birmingham – Dynamite Hill, the front line for black and white residents

Around Birmingham there’s a civil rights trail with interpretive panels in key parts of the city, and I took a short driving tour with Barry McNealy from the BCRI to learn about some other historic locations of the city. Dynamite Hill is the nickname of a road in the Smithfield area in Birmingham, forming the frontline between Black and White residents, since it was a neighbourhood divided by segregation.

One side of the road was designated a white neighbourhood, the other side designated for black owned homes. Once black residents started moving onto the white side of the road, they faced being targeted with petrol bombs thrown at their doors and bullets aimed at their windows. Look out for the interpretive markers in neighbourhoods like these, that tell the story of Birmingham’s Civil Rights movement. More information about the consortium of historic sites in Birmingham on the BCRI website.

Historic Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham

My final stop of Birmingham’s Civil Rights trail was the Historic Bethel Baptist church, one that I nearly missed as I went by mistake to the modern Bethel Baptist church up the road, that has replaced the original building as a place of worship.

I was greeted here by Dr Martha Bouyer who shared the story of the church and its pastor from 1953-1961 Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who was one of the Birmingham leaders of the Civil Rights movement. Rev. Shuttlesworth was chairman of the Alabama chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (AAACP), but after this was outlawed within the state, he founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) in 1956 to continue the work.

Ghost house at Historic Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Ghost house at Historic Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama

As a result of the activities, the church and parsonage were targeted by bombs on three occasions, one of these on Christmas night 1956, when a bomb demolished the parsonage beside the church. Miraculously Rev Shuttlesworth and his family emerged unscathed, even though the house had been destroyed around them. Beside the church you can see the shape of the house where the parsonage once stood, a “ghost house” that is now filled with a peaceful garden to remind passers by what once stood there.

Check out this Birmingham Civil Rights Tour to see the places I mention in this article

Even after moving to another church in Ohio, Rev Shuttlesworth frequently returned to Birmingham as one of the architects of the Civil Rights campaign there. In 1961, the church was also the Alabama centre for the Freedom Ride, when groups of black and white activists rode together on the intercity buses in order to establish the legally established principle of non-segregation.

Historic Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Historic Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama

It was privilege to hear these stories from Dr Martha Bouyer, to stand in the footsteps of such courageous Civil Rights leaders and to sign the visitor banner in the church – it’s certainly worth visiting some the historic Civil Rights monuments like this to hear the stories first hand.

Bethel Baptist Church websiteCivil Rights trail website | Tours are available 10am – 3pm Mon, Weds, Fri and on Tuesday and Thursday by appointment. 

More information for visiting Birmingham on the Civil Rights Trail

You can find more information on the US Civil Rights Trail website and the Birmingham tourism website which has some itineraries you can follow;

Hotels in Birmingham – Hampton Inn and Suites Tutwiler Hotel

For the two nights I spent in Birmingham, I was in the grand and historic Hampton Inn and Suites Tutwiler Hotel, which is very centrally located in the Downtown area.

Tutwiler Hotel in Birmingham Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Tutwiler Hotel in Birmingham Alabama

The Tutwiler Hotel opened in 1915 and was known as the Grande Dame of Southern Hotels, hosting the great and the good of Birmingham in a hotel that reflected the city’s prosperity at that time. The style here is classic and I had a very elegant suite on one of the upper floors with classic wooden furniture and windows opening to the balcony.  

Hampton Inn and Suites – Tutwiler Hotel Website | Read Tripadvisor Reviews | Address: 2021 Park Place, Birmingham | Check out more hotels in Birmingham

Visiting Selma – on the Civil Rights trail in Alabama USA

From Birmingham, I drove south to Selma, a small town that’s known as the starting point of the Selma March of 1965. Before my trip to Alabama I’d watched the film “Selma”, directed by Ava DuVernay and co-produced by Oprah Winfrey.

The film shows the Selma Marches through the eyes of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and was released in 2015 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the marches. Since much of the film was filmed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where the marches started, it has brought a steady stream of visitors to the town, who are inspired to see where the real life events of the march from Selma to Montgomery took place.

Selma Interpretive Centre

A good place to start your visit to Selma is the Interpretive Centre, on the street corner right opposite the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It marks the start of the Selma to Montgomery historic trail and acts as a tourist information centre, as well as having displays and audiovisual presentations about the campaign for voter rights in Selma.

Read more about my trip: 50 things to do in Alabama on a Road Trip USA

At the entrance I was struck by the display of a government official ready to fend off registrations to vote from Black citizens, a scene we see in the film, where Oprah Winfrey plays Annie Lee Cooper, a civil rights activist who tries to register. A story I heard several times was that impossible and subjective questions were used to deter black registrants, such as “how many beans are there in the jar?” or “how many bubbles in a bar of soap?

Selma & Dallas County Chamber|Civil Rights trail website | Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail 

Selma Interpretive Centre in Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Selma Interpretive Centre in Alabama

Edmund Pettus Bridge, start of the Selma Marches

Just opposite the interpretive centre is the Edmund Pettus Bridge, built in 1940 to carry the main road from Selma to Montgomery and replacing an earlier bridge on historic Water Avenue. The bridge receives a steady flow of visitors as the focus point of the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965.

To give you some background, in March 1965 a march was organised in Selma by Civil Rights activist James Bevel, to bring a focus on the issue of black voter disenfranchisement, as well as to protest against the shooting of activist and deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson by a policeman, a month earlier.

Starting at the Brown Chapel AME Church, the marchers crossed the bridge from the Selma side, only to be violently driven back by state troopers with tear gas, clubs and police riders on horseback. The event that came to be known as Bloody Sunday, was widely reported in world media and caused shock waves throughout the USA.

Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama

Two days later a second march took place, with Dr Martin Luther King Jr. among the leaders, but facing more state troopers, they turned back rather than face further confrontation and bloodshed. On that evening a white minister, James Reeb from Boston, who had joined the march, was beaten to death by a white mob. After the third march, a white woman, Viola Gregg Liuzzo was also shot and killed in her car, while giving a lift to fellow activists. This second march came to be known as Turnaround Tuesday.

The first two marches and the outcry they caused increased pressure on President Lyndon Johnson, who brought forward Civil Rights legislation. With the support of the courts and protection of the Alabama National Guard, the third march from Selma to Montgomery started on March 25th 1965.

You may also enjoy this article: Taste the food of Alabama, 20 dishes you’ll want to try!

Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama

Although the numbers were restricted at the start, thousands joined the three day march until an estimated 25,000 people gathered to present a petition at the steps of Montgomery’s State Capitol Building. Martin Luther King addressed the crowd in Montgomery with an eloquent speech – How Long, not Long.

“I know you are asking today, How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long. How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.” How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.”

Selma & Dallas County ChamberCivil Rights trail website | Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail

Brown Chapel AME Church where the Selma Marches were planned

My final stop on the Civil Rights Trail in Selma, was the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, where the Selma marches were planned, which is now designated as a National Historic Landmark.

I was warmly welcomed at the church by Terri Barnes Smith whose family are longstanding church members. Terri told me of her memories of Bloody Sunday, running to her grandmother’s house to watch mounted police chasing terrified protesters down the street. I’m sure there are many others locally who remember that day, or have heard first hand accounts from parents and grandparents.

Selma Brown Chapel AME Church Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Selma Brown Chapel AME Church

Selma Brown Chapel AME Church Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Selma Brown Chapel AME Church

On Bloody Sunday 600 protesters gathered at the church to start the march across the Edmund Pettus bridge and it was here that the injured were brought after the violent attacks with whips and clubs on the marchers.

Stained glass window at Selma Brown Chapel AME Church Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Stained glass window at Selma Brown Chapel AME Church

Outside the church there’s an interpretive plaque to allow you to discover the church’s history from your smartphone, as well as a memorial to Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and all those who worked for the civil rights cause.

The names of some of those who died in the struggle, such as James Beeb, Viola Gregg Liuzzo and Jimmy Lee Jackson are engraved on the memorial. You can visit the church for a tour by appointment or check if there is anyone available who can let you see inside outside worship hours. 

Selma & Dallas County Chamber|Civil Rights trail website | Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail

Martin Luther King Statue at Selma Brown Chapel AME Church Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Martin Luther King Statue at Selma Brown Chapel AME Church

Where to stay in Selma Alabama

I did not stay in Selma but there are a number of smaller hotels and also apartments for rental through Airbnb like the Woolworth Lofts. The historic St James Hotel is set by the river and is currently undergoing renovation, to reopen as a boutique hotel which should help to rejuvenate the historic Water Avenue district. Check out more hotels in Selma.

Visiting Montgomery – on the Civil Rights trail in Alabama USA

My final stop on the Alabama Civil Rights trail was in Montgomery, scene of many civil rights campaigns, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Selma Marches that ended at the Alabama State Capitol building. In the last few years, two important places have opened for the understanding of the movement, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (also known as the Lynching Memorial) and The Legacy Museum.

Read more about my trip: 50 things to do in Alabama on a Road Trip USA

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery

A close distance from the imposing Alabama State Capitol Building, with its powerful domes and towering columns, stands the modest red brick Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr Martin Luther King Jr. was Pastor from 1954 to 1960. As I was visiting on Sunday and the church service was underway, I wasn’t able to visit the church, but it is open for tours on other days.

Although I didn’t take the 90 minute tour, it was highly recommended for the warmth of the welcome, the opportunity to visit Martin Luther King’s office and even stand in the pulpit where he preached. In the basement there’s a mural depicting the events of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that was planned here.

Looking for places to eat in Montgomery?: Taste the food of Alabama, 20 dishes you’ll want to try!

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama

In 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested for failing to surrender her seat on the bus to white person, the buses being segregated with whites at the front and blacks at the back, with whites always taking priority. The bus boycott that followed in response was planned at the church, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, and since 3/4 of the bus users were black the boycott caused economic difficulties for the buses and the city.

The black community walked, gave lifts and created car pools, despite strategies to outlaw this from the city government. After a year of the bus boycott, bus segregation was ruled by the Supreme court to be unlawful, although there was a violent backlash from white extremists in the city with shootings and bombing.

A short walk away, you can also visit the parsonage where Dr King lived with his young family during the time he was pastor, which is now a museum. The house is furnished as it was during Dr King’s residence and was bombed several times although no-one was hurt.

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church | Church Tours on the hour 10am – 3pm except noon Tues – Fri and Sat 10-1pm. Tours may be pre-booked but are open for walk-ins if space available. Closed for public visits on Sunday and Monday but worshipers welcome on Sunday | Dexter Parsonage Museum| Tours are also available at similar times at the Parsonage Museum which has an adjoining interpretation centre.

Montgomery State Capitol where the Selma March ended

Within plain sight of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist church stands the Alabama State Capitol Building, which I imagine Martin Luther King must have gazed at many times, wondering how things could change in this powerful seat of government. It’s set on the high ground in Montgomery known as Goat Hill and everything about the State Capitol building, with its dome, long flight of steps and Greek Revival columns, radiates an aura of power and authority.

Montgomery State Capitol in Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Montgomery State Capitol in Alabama

The building was closed on the Sunday when I passed by, but I was able to wander up the steps and walk right around the building to see the landscaped grounds with an avenue of flags from all the US states and a copy of the Liberty Bell. You can visit the building free of charge and visit the House of Representatives, Senate Chamber, Old Supreme Court Chamber and Library and the Rotunda. The painted ceiling of the Senate Chamber and the murals in the Rotunda depict scenes from Alabama history.

Montgomery to Selma Historic trail in Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Montgomery to Selma Historic trail in Alabama

At the foot of the steps are information plaques about the Selma to Montgomery march that ended here, with a reported 25,000 people both black and white, who gathered to hear Martin Luther King speak. Following the speech Dr King and the marchers approached the building to deliver a petition to Governor George Wallace but their way was barred, although the petition was finally delivered to one of his secretaries.

Alabama State Capitol Building website | Free admission | Open Mon-Fri 8am – 4.30pm Sat 9am – 3pm for self guided visits. 

National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery

If there was one place on the US Civil Rights Trail that stood out for me, it was the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery (also known as the Lynching memorial), created by architects MASS Design Group,which opened in 2018.

This memorial to the victims of lynching in the American South left me feeling inspired but emotional, with its thought provoking use of space, shape and symbolism. On the way out there were many other visitors with a tear in their eye.

I didn’t see any graphic imagery, so this is an ideal and indeed important place to visit with children, that will provoke conversations and create understanding around a difficult topic.

There are some in Alabama who might wish not to bring up the horror of past events, to “let sleeping dogs lie” or even pretend that they did not happen. But the memorial encourages us to confront the stark reality of past injustice and remind us that, with ongoing economic inequality of black and white, there is still much work to do.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama

At the entrance of the memorial is a beautiful garden of reflection, which is a quiet place to stop after your visit and reflect on what you have seen. On the path that winds through the memorial, we are greeted first by a sculpture by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo of a group of slaves, crying out for help, yet trying to maintain their dignity.

It’s a reminder that there’s a continuum of injustice that began with slavery, through racial terrorism in the lynchings up until the 1950s, taking us to the present day when the everyday lives of black and white citizens in parts of Alabama seem to run along parallel tracks.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama

On the grassy rise sits the memorial square, with pillars of corroded steel that hang from the ceiling, each one representing the lynching victims of a county within the USA and engraved with their names. There are over 800 columns and they represent the 4400 documented lynchings of black people between 1877 and the 1950s, which were mainly in the Southern US states, probably with many more undocumented.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.comNational Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama

As you walk among the columns, reading the names and taking in what they represent, the floor slopes downwards until the columns rise above your head, hanging as if to symbolise victims who were strung up by the angry mob.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama

At eye level you may read some of the details of the lynchings that are remembered here. How petty their “crimes” seem, yet they paid with their lives. 

“Seven black people were lynched near Screamer, Alabama in 1888 for drinking from a white man’s well”

“Henry Smith 17 was lynched in Paris, Texas in 1893 before a mob of 10,000 people”

“Caleb Gadley was lynched in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1894 for walking behind the wife of his white employer”

“After an overcoat went missing from a hotel in Tifton, Georgia in 1900, two men were lynched, whipped to death while being interrogated in the woods”

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama

Along one side of the memorial there’s a curtain of water to commemorate the thousands of lynching victims whose names are unknown, and a collection of soil from lynching sites that the community can add to.

I think I had imagined that lynchings were isolated incidents, the result of angry mobs who lost control. The memorial made me realise that these lynchings by hanging, burning, beating, shooting and drowning were a form of institutionalised violence, often planned and carried out openly in public and condoned by the authorities. The racially motivated lynchings were a terrorism designed to instill fear in the black community, their objective to maintain the supremacy of white over black in everyday life.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama

As if to emphasise this point, the Memorial Square within the central space is plain, green and devoid of colour. It represents the many public spaces where people gathered, sometimes in their hundreds and thousands, to watch and cheer on the lynchings and to give their support to what was happening beyond the rule of law.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama

There’s a challenge as you emerge from the section of hanging pillars, where duplicates of the columns lie in rows like coffins. These pillars are waiting to be claimed by each county where lynchings took place, to find an appropriate spot to place them and create their own lynching memorial. The memorial calls us to confront the unpalatable past and use it as a catalyst for a better future. 

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama

Walking down the path from the Memorial square there are further sculptures about the struggle for racial equality. The Rise Up figures by Hank Willis Thomas with arms stretched up as if surrendering to the viewer, represent the racial bias that continues to exist within the legislative system. The Guided by Justice sculpture by Dana King shows three women of different ages and is dedicated to all the women who sustained the Montgomery bus boycott, walking every day in all weathers.

This National Memorial is one that I urge you to visit. It was one of the stand-out places from my trip to Alabama, and one that I found impossible to visit and come away unmoved.

National Memorial Museum Website | Open daily except Tuesday 9am – 5pm (last entry 4.30pm) | Entrance $5 or $10 for combined ticket with Legacy Museum | Location: The memorial is a little way from the downtown area, but walkable at 417 Caroline Street, Montgomery

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

National Memorial for Peace and Justice Montgomery Alabama

The Legacy Museum, Montgomery

The partner to the Lynching Memorial is The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, which is located in a warehouse that was once used to imprison slaves before their sale in the market. Where the Memorial is understated and calm, this Civil Rights Museum in Montgomery is much more challenging, using images, video and a range of audiovisual presentations to put across its message.

It covers the legacy of slavery, which evolved after emancipation into suppression and racial terrorism and continues today with inequality of economic opportunity and unequal treatment in the judicial system.

The Legacy Museum in Montgomery Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

The Legacy Museum in Montgomery Alabama

No photography is allowed inside the museum which I respected and understood after I had visited, since the topics are so serious. As you walk into the main museum area, the images of slaves call to you, speaking of their agony at separation from loved ones who they might never see again. The stories and information about lynching that I’d seen at the memorial were echoed again here, with jars of soil taken from lynching sites, each with the name of the victim.

Through videos, prisoners tell their stories of how they came to be there, shining a light on prejudice within the criminal justice system and unequal treatment for black and white citizens.  The Museum creates a powerful argument and leaves visitors with an anger at ongoing injustice baked into society that needs to be addressed.

The Legacy Museum website | Open daily except Tuesday 9am – 7.30pm | Entrance $8 or $10 for combined ticket with National Memorial | Address: 115 Coosa Street, Montgomery

Lynching memorial in Montgomery Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels.com

Lynching memorial in Montgomery Alabama

Montgomery – other Civil Rights locations

As my time was limited I didn’t get to see all the places on the Civil Rights trail in Montgomery. Some other places worth visiting are;

Rosa Parks Museum – located at the site of Rosa Park’s arrest that sparked the bus boycott, with information about the historical events and a restored bus.

Freedom Riders Museum – set in a former bus station, this is at the site where the Freedom Riders were attacked when they tried to challenge the practice of segregated travel on interstate buses.

Take a look at other Civil Rights locations in Montgomery on the Civil Rights Trail website.

Where to stay in Montgomery – the Fitzgerald Museum Apartments

Fitzgerald Museum Zelda Apartment Montgomery Alabama Photo Heatheronhertravels

Fitzgerald Museum Zelda Apartment Montgomery Alabama

While in Montgomery I stayed in one of the apartments at the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. Mine was the Zelda Suite, with a portrait of Zelda Fitzgerald hanging over the mantelpiece, reproductions of her beautiful paintings and her framed letters to her husband Scott.

The apartment is spacious and comfortable, and is decorated in the style of the 1930s when the couple lived there. There are two bedrooms, a living room, bathroom and kitchen, all with a delightfully retro feel, as if you are visiting the home of your rather stylish grandmother.

The Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum | Book the Zelda Fitzgerald Suite | Address: 919 Felder Avenue, Montgomery | Check out more hotels in Montgomery

More information for Visiting Alabama

Plan your visit to Alabama on the Alabama Tourism website

Social Media: Twitter @TweetHomeAla | Instagram @AlabamaTravel | Facebook AlabamaTravel

You can also get more information on the regional tourism websites for Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery.

Book your trip to Alabama USA

Book your trip with America as you like it who offer bespoke self guided tours of Alabama and the USA. America As You Like It can recreate my trip with a 9 night holiday from just £1,270 per person (based on 2 people sharing room only) including return international flights on American Airlines, car hire and hotel stays.

This price is based on 2 nights Marriott Huntsville, 1 night GunRunner Hotel Florence, 2 nights Hampton Inn & Suites Birmingham Downtown Tutwiler, 1 night Hampton Inn & Suites Montgomery Downtown, 1 night Hampton Inn & Suites Downtown Historic District Mobile and 2 nights Hotel Indigo Orange Beach. For more information contact 020 8742 8299, sales@americaasyoulikeit.com or visit www.americaasyoulikeit.com

You can also book an Alabama Civil Rights Trail trip with America As you Like It from £1084 per person.

Looking for an interesting read for your Alabama trip? Check out Paul Theroux Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads

Hotels in Alabama: You can check prices and book for a range of hotels in Alabama here.

Getting to Alabama: It’s easy to fly direct from the UK to the USA via nearby airports such as Atlanta or New Orleans or you can connect via numerous US airport hubs and then flying on to regional airports such as Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery or Pensacola. I recommend using Skyscanner to search for the best routes and prices.


Map of Alabama

You can use this map of Alabama that I’ve made to easily find all the places mentioned in my article

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US civil rights trail in Alabama

This article was sponsored* by Alabama Travel and America as you like it who provided the experiences mentioned while I was in Alabama.

* More info on my policies page

This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com – Read the original article here

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Angela
    November 11, 2019 at 1:50 pm

    A moving and detailed post. I have learnt a lot through reading it.

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