A Heart for Change in the Heart of Dixie

The eyes of the world were once fixated on a state known as the “Heart of Dixie, as groundbreaking events changed the course of history. Alabama’s historic civil rights legacy is found in every inch of Montgomery and Selma – two pivotal cities in the movement.

Montgomery has the rare distinction of being both the birthplace of the Civil War and the civil rights movement. Both began in Court Square, a district abundant with major historic landmarks. “This lovely roundabout with a decorative fountain at its center is a place where you can experience 360 degrees of history,” says Meg Lewis, director of tourism and special events for the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce.

The telegraph giving orders to fire on Fort Sumter, starting the Civil War, was sent from the Winter Building. On the same block, an unassuming seamstress refused to give up her seat on the bus. Rosa Parks’ quiet defiance sparked the organization of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the movement’s first success.

Troy University’s Rosa Parks Museum is just down from Court Square. Different formats are utilized to recapture the experience as it occurred. “It’s interactive. We make no attempt to rewrite history,” says Gette M. Norman, museum director.

Multimedia features replicate history for a true fly-on-the-wall experience. A replica of a bus from 1955 depicts a reenactment of Parks’ arrest. It’s so realistic, you feel every emotion.
“There is also a replica of the rolling church wagon,” says Norman. While boycotting the buses, blacks relied on private taxis driven by other blacks with cars. Some churches purchased station wagons to assist blacks in their transportation.

According to Norman, one of the most popular features is the “Time Machine.” Patrons are able to travel through black history, starting in the 1850s. “You get on a bus and meet Dred Scott, a U.S. slave who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom. You meet Harriet Tubman. You also go back to Jim Crow to understand where that law comes from,” says Norman. The bus stops in 1955, when Rosa boards the bus to meet her destiny.

The Rosa Parks museum not only recounts history, but offers a life lesson as well. “It is about how people who were so disrespected heard a message and acted upon it,” says Norman. “They were victorious through nonviolence. If we talked about that more, we would have a different world now.”
Steps away from Court Square is possibly the most historic street in the United States. Dexter Avenue has witnessed many world-changing events. The Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March ended there with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s climatic speech, “How Long, Not Long.”

“From the Civil War to the civil rights movement, there’s no other place where the footsteps of such historical characters like Jefferson Davis, Rosa Parks and Dr. King all overlap,” says Meg Lewis.
Dexter Avenue is also home to a church that cultivated a young Rev. King, as he began his first full-time pastorship. “A lot of people don’t realize that this is the first and only church King ever pastored,” says Aviva Muhammad, tourism manager for The Dexter Parsonage Museum.

Collaborating with the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, NAACP activist E.D. Nixon, and other noted members of the community, Dr. King went on to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association. This alliance organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, with the church as its launching ground.

The Dexter Parsonage Museum sits a few blocks from the church. This was the home of Dr. King and his family before their move to Atlanta. “Everything is in its original state and arranged basically how it was when they lived there,” says Muhammad. A tour through the tiny home gives you a peek into their world – and into history.

In 1965, an Alabama state trooper fatally shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was protecting his mother and grandmother from assault. Under the leadership of John Lewis and the Rev. Hosea Williams, hundreds of voting rights advocates were inspired to take their grievance to Gov. George Wallace.

Their plan was to march from Selma to Montgomery. Six blocks in, while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers attacked the protesters with tear gas and sticks. The attacks were caught by national media. “Thousands of people saw firsthand how intense their struggle,” says Ashley Mason, tourism director for the Selma-Dallas County Chamber of Commerce.

Each first full weekend in March, thousands of African-Americans head into Selma to mark the anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

The Bridge Crossing Jubilee is a four-day commemoration. It begins with a welcome reception. “A lot of dignitaries and people who actually walked the bridge are in attendance,” says Mason.
A host of fun events, such as step shows, beauty pageants and street fairs, brings light to the somber occurrence. The weekend ends on Sunday with a walk across the bridge.

The Old Depot Museum brings out the historian in us all. A restored railway depot, it includes the most obscure artifacts from slavery to civil rights – and everything in between.
“One of the most obscure items is the actual ER log from the Good Samaritan hospital from Bloody Sunday,” says Beth Spivey, museum curator. “Another is a handwritten bill of goods for a slave girl.”
The items are through donations.

A cardigan worn by Dr. King was donated by Jean and Sullivan Jackson. Jean was a childhood friend of Coretta Scott King. Their home was the headquarters for the Selma to Montgomery March and The Voting Rights Act. King stayed with the family during that time and the couple became his close confidants.

The home is now available for tours, led by the Jacksons’ daughter, Juwana. Mr. Jackson often said, “If these walls could talk.” Juwana guides the tour room by room, sharing personal stories that only those closest to King were privileged to experience.

The most profound history is not found within bricks and mortar or city landmarks. The presence of those who sacrificed their safety, and even their lives, continues to live within the hearts and souls of the locals who are always ready to share their stories.