Tracing the Footsteps of Change in Alabama

Montgomery’s civil-rights sites evoke pain and pride.


Montgomery, Alabama sites include the Rosa Parks Museum bus, Hank Willis Thomas Sculpture, and the Civil Rights Memorial Center.

Bus photo courtesy institutions; sculpture courtesy Equal Justice/Human Pictures

When the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, with its wrenching sculptures of enslaved African Americans, opened last year, the nation’s eyes turned to Montgomery, Alabama. This 6-acre memorial also contains 800 monuments with names engraved, symbolizing the victims of lynchings. The nearby Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration is on the site of a former slave warehouse.

If these were the only civil rights sites in the city, they would be worth a trip.

But Montgomery is also home to some of the country’s most outstanding civil rights destinations. They make for a powerful reflection on this part of our nation’s history — and our present.

“We sing this song with arms linked,” a white-haired black lady told 30 young white people one day during their visit to the Harris House, which is not normally open to the public. This high school class had requested special permission. They surrounded Mrs. Vera Harris, linked arms, and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

She is the widow of Richard Harris, a pharmacist who took in most of the wounded Freedom Riders on May 20, 1961, after they were beaten at the Montgomery bus station.

“We did what was needed — what we had to do,” she told the students.

Next door stands the Dexter Parsonage House and Museum. This modest house was home to Martin Luther King Jr. and his family from 1954 to 1960, the years of his emergence as leader of the civil rights movement. Visitors can view the porch in which a racist’s dynamite blasted a hole, as well as the telephone that received 40 hate-filled calls a day. In the study, a picture of Gandhi hangs.

Mere steps away from the white dome of the State Capitol stands the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. This National Historic Monument, built on the site of a former slaver’s pen, is linked to the Parsonage Museum. King preached here, as did his fiery predecessor, Vernon Johns, who shook the city with his sermon titled, “It’s Safe to Murder Negroes in Montgomery,” and it’s where much of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was planned.

Sunlight plays through stained-glass windows as visitors sit in the well-worn pews in the church that hosts a Sunday congregation — now mixed-race.

Around the corner waits the Southern Poverty Law Center, home to the Civil Rights Memorial, which honors 40 people killed in the movement. Inside the center, a film documents the ongoing civil rights movement. Visitors can view artifacts including a partially melted clock, stopped at 3:47. The Ku Klux Klan firebombed SPLC’s headquarters at 3:47 a.m. on July 28, 1983. The clock was saved as a gesture of defiance, and when the memorial and center opened in November 1989, it was back on the wall.

History also thrives in the heart of downtown. The Rosa Parks Library and Museum was built on the site of the Empire Theatre, where the bus was parked in which — on Dec. 1, 1955 — Parks refused to give up her seat. Arrested on the spot, she behaved with impeccable dignity, and her courage was the start of the yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott.

In a darkened room re-creating that scene, visitors can gaze through the windows of a holographic replica of the bus, showing passengers entering and exiting as a voiceover recounts the story. Other exhibits provide a glimpse into the days of the boycott.

Visiting Montgomery provides an insightful look at a painful time in American history. But seeing the care with which the sites and monuments have been created, it can also be a journey of hope.

When You Go

National Memorial for Peace and Justice: 417 Caroline St., Montgomery, 334-386-9100,

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church: 454 Dexter Ave., Montgomery, 334-261-3270,

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial and Center: 400 Washington Ave., Montgomery, 334-956-8200,

Rosa Parks Library and Museum: 252 Montgomery St., Montgomery, 334-241-8615,