Arriving in Montgomery, a delightful southern city and Alabama state capital, it is difficult to believe that just fifty-five years ago it was the epicentre of the fight for civil rights in this country. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person on the 1st December 1955, her subsequent arrest sparked a movement of peaceful resistance which resonated around the world.
This singular act of courage by a middle-aged African-American woman, which was mirrored by many before and after, has been embraced by the city with many of its attractions linked to the history of the civil rights movement.
Unlike many cities I’ve visited around the world, it is difficult to miss a point of interest or tourist attraction in Montgomery all of which are highlighted by tastefully designed signs which integrate gracefully into the look and feel of the historic streets. This makes touring the city without a guide an enjoyable experience, knowing that you are not missing key points or useful bits of information along the way. That said, a ‘Trolley’ Tour of the downtown area is a wonderful way of getting some geographical bearings anointed with background history from an experienced guide.
According to the tourism authority, ‘no city has played a greater role in the history of the state than Montgomery which from the Civil War to Civil Rights, is steeped in history’. In comparison to many world cultures this may be a brief historical timeline, but it is a history that is well recorded in various forms of media which are well presented at many of the city’s attractions. So where to start?
Personally – unless you want to save the best till last – I would start with the Capitol building which, with its Greek revival design, stands as a magnificent focal-point to the city’s collection of government buildings which adorn the centre of Montgomery. The Capitol building holds the distinction of being a National Historic Landmark and is where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as President of the Confederate States of America in 1861. It was also where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a moving speech from the bottom of its steps nearly a century later at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march. The internal design of the building is as grand as the external facia and well preserved with lots of accessibility.
Admission is free and a tour of the Capitol is recommended but unless you are in a group or arriving on a Saturday it will have to be self-guided. http://www.preserveala.org/capitoltour.htm
Just a short walk from the Capitol building is the First White House of the Confederacy which has been preserved as a museum http://www.firstwhitehouse.org/ and entry is also free.
The key ‘civil rights’ sights are the Rosa Parks Museum and Library, the Civil Rights Memorial Center, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and Martin Luther King Jr.’s former home.
Rosa Parks Museum and Library – is a brilliant educational attraction constructed on the site of the old Empire Theatre where Rosa Parks made her historic stand. There is a great facility for kids with a ‘time machine’ bus which transports visitors through the history of Montgomery.
Civil Rights Memorial Center – it was quite a moving experience visiting the Memorial Center with its beautifully crafted monument and interactive visual -displays, the center manages to evoke the pain, suffering and strength of the past and combine it delicately with the hope and ambitions of freedom fighters around the globe.
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church – its name might be a mouthful but this church is a reminder of the power of what Winston Churchill would have called ‘Jaw Jaw’. Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor here from 1954 to 1960 and it is from the Church’s pulpit that he made some of his most passionate broadcasts in the quest for civil rights.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s Former Home – has now been converted into a museum/visitor attraction and is certainly worth a visit as it provides an insight into the life of one of the key figures in 20th century American history.
With so much of the history of Montgomery dominated by the Civil War and Civil Rights, it is easy to miss other worthwhile spots. Whilst not my cup-of-tea the Hank Williams Museum is a must for anyone with an interest in Country Music or the American music industry and the Old Alabama Town is a typically twee recreation of 19th century American life – but great as an educational facility for school groups in particular.
SHOPPING and NIGHTLIFE
Montgomery is not a shopper’s paradise but it does offer some good shopping including the quirky Eastbrook Flea Market and Antique Mall which is worth a visit.
Neither is Montgomery the nightlife capital of the south, but there are enough good restaurants and bars to enjoy a night out – and it is certainly safe – I’ve never seen such a high visibility police presence on a night out in the states. I only visited The Alley Bar – which lacked atmosphere (although to be fair it was a Wednesday night) and the frozen shot-room was a little incongruous in my opinion.
All in all Montgomery is worth a stop for a day or two particularly for anyone with an interest in U.S. history.