Ryan Robinson takes you for a ride in the passenger seat of his RV, off the grid, deep among the dramatic rock formations of the Utah Desert. Robinson and friends chill by the fire, tell stories, and of course, rig a one of a kind highline over the Looking Glass Arch in Moab, UT.
In fact, there is so much civil rights history to absorb in Alabama, that it’s worthwhile to start one’s visit with a guided history tour led by an expert who is knowledgeable about civil rights history and can explain the events that took place in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma.
Red Clay Tours offers 2.5 to 3-hour history tours of Birmingham that include the major civil rights landmarks as well as homes that were bombed by civil rights opponents, which are difficult to find without a guide. The guides not only provide terrific descriptions of each historical site and its significance in the Civil Rights Movement, but allow for questions from tour participants, which can make such tours even more educational and meaningful.
The good news for RV enthusiasts is that there are campgrounds and RV parks near Alabama’s major historical sites, which makes it feasible to use them as base camps for civil rights history tours.
Here’s a sampling of major historical sites and museums in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma along with nearby campgrounds that can be used as base camps:
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute: This museum connects visitors to the Civil Rights Movement. After viewing a short documentary film, visitors experience powerful exhibits of a segregated city in the 1950s. The museum includes a replica of a Freedom Riders bus as well as the actual jail cell door behind which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The institute is also home to an expansive archive of documents from the Civil Rights Movement and nearly 500 recorded oral histories relevant to the period. In addition to its permanent exhibits, the museum has traveling exhibitions on the Freedom Rides, the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Elder Grace, and lesbian families living in the Deep South. The museum hosts annual celebrations on landmark dates, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month.
Kelly Ingram Park: This park became the epicenter of the nation’s Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s. This is where news crews captured footage of Birmingham’s white police officers using dogs to attack nonviolent black protestors who challenged the city’s segregation laws during a series of demonstrations in 1963. The park became the international focus of civil disobedience for African Americans demanding equality. Sculptures throughout the park show how police assaulted demonstrators with police dogs and fire hoses. An audio tour is free and available to anyone with a mobile phone.
Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park: This is a memorial garden to singer Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations. It features a bronze sculpture of Kendricks by Tuskegee artist Ron McDowell, as well as sculptures of the other Temptations set into a granite wall. Inscribed on the granite are the names of the Temptations’ hit songs. The park uses Kendricks’ family name without the “s,” which was added early in his career.
Bethel Baptist Church: This church was an epicenter for civil rights during the 1950s and 60s, according to the National Park Service, which produced a detailed account of the church’s significance under the leadership of Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, founder of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.
16th Street Baptist Church: This church became another internationally known focal point of the Civil Rights Movement after affiliates of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church during a Mass, killing four African American girls in 1963. The National Park Service (NPS) documents the civil rights history of the church on its website. “Upon learning of the bombing at the Church,” the NPS writes, “Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to Alabama Governor George Wallace, a staunch and vocal segregationist, stating bluntly: 'The blood of our little children is on your hands.’ The brutal attack and the deaths of the four little girls shocked the nation and drew international attention to the violent struggle for civil rights in Birmingham. Many whites were as outraged by the incident as blacks and offered services and condolences to the families. Over, 8,000 people attended the girls' funeral services at Reverend John Porter's Sixth Avenue Baptist Church.”
The NPS notes that the deaths of the four girls was followed two months later by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which caused an outpouring of national grief, galvanized the Civil Rights Movement, and paved the way for the eventual passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Montgomery was home to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and other icons of the Civil Rights Movement, and much of their history can be found in the city today.
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church:In this National Historic Landmark at 454 Dexter Avenue, visitors can see the modest pulpit where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. first preached his message of hope and brotherhood. This church was also a focal point of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A large mural in the church depicts King’s civil rights crusade from Montgomery to Memphis, Tennessee, where he was assassinated.
Freedom Rides Museum: This museum traces the history of the “Freedom Riders,” the black and white civil rights activists who rode together in “Freedom Rides,” which were bus trips across the American South in 1961 to protest segregated bus terminals and segregated travel across the South.
The museum’s award-winning exhibits trace the Freedom Riders' tumultuous journey through the South, along with historic images of the protest and voices of those who supported and opposed the Freedom Rides. The Historic Greyhound Bus Station that hosts the museum is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and illustrates how buildings were designed for racial segregation.
The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice: This museum provides a comprehensive history of the United States with a focus on the legacy of slavery. Visitors view a short documentary film before entering the museum, which features powerful exhibits documenting everything from the transatlantic slave trade and its impact on the North and coastal communities across America through the domestic slave trade and Reconstruction. The museum provides detailed interactive content and compelling narratives. The museum uses detailed, first-person narratives, films, images, and scholarly documentation to describe the practices of lynching, codified racial segregation, as well as the emergence of over-incarceration in the 20th century. A shuttle takes visitors to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is a short distance away from the museum. Set on a six-acre site, the memorial uses sculpture, art, and design to contextualize racial terror. The site includes a memorial structure with over 800 steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns.
Montgomery’s Civil Rights Memorial: Operated by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Civil Rights Memorial is located at 400 Washington Avenue. It features a black granite table enshrined with the names of the martyrs and chronicles the history of the movement. The memorial was designed by Maya Lin, the same artist who designed the Vietnam Veteran Memorial in Washington. It is designed as a contemplative area where visitors are encouraged to touch the names of those enshrined. It is located just around the corner from the church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the State Capitol where the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march concluded in 1965.
Rosa Parks Library and Museum: Located on the campus of Troy University, the museum chronicles Rosa Parks’ life and the incident during which Parks boarded a bus in December 1955 and refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Black outrage of her subsequent arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott lasted more than a year and increased the prominence of many figures in the civil rights movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The boycott ended after a separate Supreme Court decision held that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional.
Rosa Parks Statue: A statue of Rosa Parks has been erected on the site where she was arrested in December 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. The statue is located at Montgomery Plaza at the Court Street Fountain, 30 feet from the spot where Parks is believed to have boarded the segregated bus where she refused to give up her seat to a white man on Dec. 1, 1955.
An easy day trip from Montgomery is the tiny town of Selma, which is best known for the 1960s Selma Voting Rights Movement and the Selma to Montgomery marches, beginning with “Bloody Sunday” in March 1965 and ending with 25,000 people entering Montgomery at the end of the last march to press for voting rights. This activism generated national attention to social justice and that summer the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed by Congress to authorize federal oversight and enforcement of constitutional rights of all citizens. Key attractions in Selma include:
Edmund Pettus Bridge: This bridge became a symbol of the momentous changes taking place in Alabama, America, and the world. It was here that voting rights marchers were violently confronted by law enforcement personnel on March 7, 1965. The day became known as Bloody Sunday. Since 1965, many marches have commemorated the events of Bloody Sunday. These marches were crucial to the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The act prohibited racial discrimination in voting, protecting the right to vote for racial minorities in the U.S. and especially in the American South.
The website CivilRightsTrail.com has an entire section that focuses on Alabama-specific historical sites connected with the Civil Rights Movement. Additional campgrounds and RV parks across Alabama can also be found HERE.
Jeff Crider, President and CEO of Crider Public Relations, has been involved in covering the campground industry for over 25 years. Jeff has worked as a freelance writer for publications such as RV Business, Motor Home Magazine, Trailer Life, Highways and other Affinity Group Inc. publications since 1995. He has also successfully pitched many of the nation's top tier media outlets, including CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Financial Times, Reuters, The Associated Press and National Public Radio. In addition to writing, Jeff is also a talented photographer and humanitarian.