A souvenir button sold at the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery reads, “The March Continues.” It refers to the Civil Rights March of 1965 from Selma to Montgomery, a galvanizing event that led to the Voting Rights Act protecting the rights of African Americans to vote. New projects, including the nation’s first monument to lynching, advance the equal-rights cause and make Montgomery a vital stop on any history tour of the United States. The capital of Alabama is both the first Confederate capital and the birthplace of the civil rights movement; it is where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger; and where The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as the movement’s leader. Today, new investment is revitalizing abandoned buildings downtown and Queen Anne mansions in nearby neighborhoods, filling them with a podcast studio, beer garden, coffee shop and galleries, places designed to encourage conversations about metaphorically continuing that march.
According to the nonprofit legal center Equal Justice Initiative, more than 4,400 African Americans were murdered by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. The E.J.I.’s new National Memorial for Peace and Justice is the nation’s first to recognize those atrocities. Visitors to the hilltop site will initially see columns representing the 800 counties throughout the country where lynchings occurred. Perception shifts inside the plaza, revealing the steel monuments as suspended, like hangings. A twin set of 800 monuments lie in the surrounding garden, awaiting reclamation by those counties. The companion Legacy Museum downtown traces the evolution of inequality from slavery and racial terror to police violence and mass incarceration.
The former S.H. Kress & Co. department store on the main drag of Dexter Avenue has just been renovated and reopened as the Kress on Dexter, a mixed-use development leading the downtown commercial renaissance. Now businesses and apartments share the original 1929 vintage building with restored terrazzo floors, ornate plaster moldings and the original signs for “colored” and “white” drinking fountains — stark reminders of segregation. Browse its street level art gallery and engage with its podcast studio, Storybooth, inspired by the many Montgomery residents with vivid recollections of the Civil Rights era. Visitors to the studio, which looks like an old-fashioned telephone booth, can dial up stories recorded by locals. Sustain your tour with a cappuccino ($3.50) from Prevail Union Craft Coffee.
You know you’re in the South when bacon is deep fried and served like French fries. That dish, called fett sow fries ($16), is served with an addictive peach chutney at Central, which occupies a rustic 1890s warehouse with exposed brick walls and a bustling open kitchen. The menu marries regional classics to ethnic influences, including wrapping hot chicken in steamed Asian buns ($14) and serving rabbit confit with wild mushrooms and pasta ($28). Save room for a decadent dessert of a doughnut drizzled in bourbon praline sauce ($8).
The downtown entertainment district spans a few blocks of renovated warehouses close to the river, home to interesting bars where you’re likely to rub elbows with residents. Aviator Bar attracts servicemen and women from nearby Maxwell Air Force Base with its military theme: sandbag-ringed nooks with World War II vintage photos and model airplanes hanging from the ceiling. A block away, the subterranean jazz club Sous La Terre entertains night owls after midnight with live music from the keyboardist Henry Pugh. Until then, crowd around the U-shaped bar in the affiliated La Salle Bleu Piano Bar upstairs.
Get your caffeine and design fix at Vintage Cafe in the Cloverdale neighborhood. The owners of the Vintage Year restaurant across the street recently opened the cafe in a former midcentury bank, preserving the terrazzo floors and installing a floating staircase to a mezzanine seating area. In an open kitchen, chefs create dishes that go beyond breakfast standards to include a smoked salmon salad ($9) and pressed focaccia sandwich with goat cheese and pistachio pesto ($5.50).
The civil rights movement was already underway when Rosa Parks, a seamstress riding home from her job at a downtown department store in 1955, refused to cede her seat on a crowded bus to a white passenger, leading to her arrest, the Montgomery bus boycott and the explosion of the campaign to end segregation. Run by Troy University, the Rosa Parks Museum (admission $7.50) tells the activist’s story in multimedia displays. Artifacts include a bus from the 1955 fleet and a restored station wagon used by car pools during the yearlong bus boycott.
More Than Tours ($25) offer 90 minutes of entertainment covering the past, present and future of civil rights struggles. Michelle Browder, the impassioned owner and guide, might break into a Freedom Rider song or recite a Dr. King speech near the steps of the capital. “To get rid of your preconceived ideas about Montgomery, you need a fresh pair of eyes,” she said on a recent tour, doling out red cat-eye sunglasses, her signature look, to travelers boarding her open-sided electric minibus. It zips from the riverfront, site of the ruins of a cotton slide used to load ships, to Court Square Fountain near a former slave market, the capitol building and Dr. King’s former home.
Dr. King was only 24 when he came to Montgomery to accept his first appointment as pastor. His handsome red brick church, now named Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, lies a block from the Alabama State Capitol presided over by a statue of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president. Take the tour ($7.50) to learn about the affluent congregation and its role in the campaign that made its pastor a national leader. Gregarious guides may entreat visitors to speak from the podium used by Dr. King.
The modest clapboard house where the King family lived between 1954 and 1960 has been preserved as the Dexter Parsonage Museum ($7.50). Visits begin at the Interpretive Center next door, which introduces neighbors and provides a personal chapter in the civil rights story. The 1912-vintage parsonage is furnished much as it was when the Kings lived here, and a plaque embedded in the front porch identifies a nearby crater marking the spot where the house was bombed by segregationists in 1956. Behind the buildings, the King-Johns Garden for Reflection invites visitors to spend a few quiet moments.
If any neighborhood is poised for a comeback, it’s the nearby Cottage Hill district, home to elegant 19th-century homes. James Weddle moved from Austin, Tex., to buy a couple and has opened Goat Haus Biergarten in one of them, a restored Victorian on a bluff, where visitors may grab a lager from Ghost Train Brewing in Birmingham ($5) and sit at a picnic table on the lawn overlooking the Alabama River. Next door 21 Dreams: Arts & Culture Collective features art shows in its front rooms that serve as a gallery.
Its new artistic director, Rick Dildine, aims to make the state’s biggest theater, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, even bigger by expanding its offerings. Presenting musicals, dramas, original productions and, of course, Shakespeare, its two stages share the grand grounds of Blount Cultural Park, also home to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, about 10 minutes from downtown. For over 25 years, the festival has sponsored the Southern Writers’ Project to commission and produce new plays on topics ranging from the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Ala., to the famous University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Upcoming shows include “Annie,” July 4 to 15.
Pinched between an alley and a parking lot, Leroy Lounge offers some 18 craft beers on tap that may include a sour ale from Fairhope Brewing Company in coastal Fairhope ($6.75). Craft spirits such as John Emerald gin, made in nearby Opelika, show up in cocktails like the Clothespin with pickled beets, honey and lemon ($11). Should hunger strike, walk down the alley to its sibling hipster El Rey Burrito Lounge for a “mighty” black bean ($10.25).
At the bustling Cahawba House, breakfast is all about the buttery biscuits ($1 each) accompanied by local honey, organic maple syrup or local jam (each $. 75). Add apple wood smoked bacon, pimento cheese and fried green tomato to build your own sustaining ’Bama breakfast. Then head to the gracious neighborhood of Cloverdale to visit the Fitzgerald Museum, the last home of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The pair met in 1918 in Montgomery when he was stationed at a nearby army camp in her hometown. They returned to the 1910-era home with their daughter, Scottie, in 1931 and stayed for about six months before Zelda was hospitalized for mental illness. Galleries feature exhibits devoted to the couple’s courtship, Zelda’s paintings, Scottie’s memories and Fitzgerald’s literature and decline. The curator, Sarah Powell, often guides tours, enriching the story with local details.
Hampton Inn & Suites Montgomery-Downtown occupies one of the city’s historic high-rises, putting many attractions within walking distance. Rates start around $106, including breakfast. 100 Commerce Street, hamptoninn3.hilton.com.
The Fitzgerald House recently put a two-bedroom apartment above the museum on Airbnb. Its period-inspired décor, including a manual typewriter and pillows embroidered with quotes by Zelda Fitzgerald, pays homage to the couple. $150 a night. 919 Felder Avenue, Airbnb.com.
In the historic Cottage Hill neighborhood, Red Bluff Cottage Bed & Breakfast offers five period rooms, including one themed to “The Great Gatsby.” Rates from $110, including breakfast. 551 Clay Street, redbluffcottage.com.
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