Standing on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, Alabama, you can feel moments in history collide. Look one way, and you’ll see the Court Square Fountain. Built in 1885, it sits on a site that once held a market where enslaved people where bought and sold. Turn your head the other way and you’ll see the state capitol building, constructed in 1851, where one of the seminal moments of the civil rights movement occurred in 1965. It was on the capitol steps where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ended the Selma to Montgomery march, an event that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
March 25 marks the 57th year since that momentous occasion, and it is commemorated by the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which traces sites across 15 states that were significant to the movement. Alabama is well represented on the trail, with a large concentration of sites in the central part of the state, making it an easy three-day, weekend road trip from Atlanta. The journey from Birmingham to Selma, Montgomery and Tuskegee serves as a reminder that the fight for racial equity is far from over.
Multiple resources are available to help plan your trip, including Lee Sentell’s visually arresting book, “The Official United States Civil Rights Trail: What Happened Here Changed the World” (Alabama Media Group, $19.95) and its companion website www.civilrightstrail.com.
One thing is clear: There’s no better time than Black History Month to visit Alabama, so use this suggested itinerary to begin your exploration of the places where history was made.
A straight shot west on I-20, Birmingham is an easy two-hour drive from Atlanta, plus you gain an hour entering the Central Time Zone. Plan to arrive in the Magic City by lunch time. Put away your cell phone (a house rule) and join the steady stream of customers queueing up at Niki’s West, adjacent to the Finley Avenue Farmers Market. At this Southern-meets-Greek, family-run cafeteria, you’re just as likely to rub shoulders with local farmers as city leaders and business power brokers. Menu items not to be missed include baked Greek chicken, fried catfish, all the vegetables, yeast rolls — you get the idea.
After lunch, take a 10-minute drive downtown to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This modern museum illustrates key moments in the movement and demonstrates what life was like before, during and after segregation in this industrial Southern city. Highlights include a replica of the Freedom Riders bus and the door to the jail cell where King penned his powerful “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Take a self-guided tour or call ahead and reserve a docent tour.
Across the street is the 16th Street Baptist Church, site of the horrific 1963 bombing that killed four young black girls. Catty-corner is Kelly Ingram Park, which once served as a gathering point for members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and others involved in the movement. Sculptures throughout the park depict powerful moments of the struggle.
Check into historic The Elyton Hotel, a Marriott Autograph property located in what was the tallest building in Alabama at the time it was constructed in 1909.
No culinary visit to Birmingham is complete without dinner at one of Pardis and Frank Stitt’s restaurants. Their James Beard Award-winning Highlands Bar & Grill remains temporarily closed, but next door is Chez FonFon, serving classic French bistro cuisine by-way-of-Cullman, Alabama, Frank Stitt’s boyhood hometown. Not-to-be-missed dishes include steak tartare, trout amandine, poulet rouge and the signature Orange Thing cocktail. Save room for pastry chef Dolester Miles’ standout coconut cake for dessert.
In need of a post-prandial cocktail? The Moonshine Bar on the roof of The Elyton Hotel is the ideal spot to wind down and take in views of the Magic City.
Saturday: Selma and Montgomery
Start your day early with a fried chicken biscuit with jalapeño pimiento cheese at the Elyton’s signature restaurant, The Yard. Then check out of the hotel and drive an hour and 45 minutes south to Selma. The first stop in town is the iconic arches of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers en route to Montgomery were beaten and assaulted with tear gas by law enforcement. Weeks later, marchers made it across the bridge and completed the 54-mile march to the state capitol steps in Montgomery.
Grab a steamy Queen City Latte and a sweet apple scone at The Coffee Shoppe housed in a once-segregated diner, then head east on U.S. Highway 80 toward Montgomery. Along about the halfway mark, you’ll arrive at Lowndes Interpretive Center, a National Park Service Site where a life-size photo mural of marchers confronted by state troopers raises chill bumps and highlights the gravity of their peaceful protest. Exhibits detail two racially motivated murders committed in the county and provide a sense of life in the area’s “tent cities,” where Black families who were pushed out of their homes by white landowners took shelter for two years.
In Montgomery, head straight to Dexter Avenue. A stroll down this wide thoroughfare in the heart of downtown takes you to several essential civil rights landmarks, including the spot where Rosa Parks boarded a bus in 1955, refused to give up her seat to a white man and sparked the Montgomery bus boycott. Around the corner, the Rosa Parks Museum is housed on the site where Parks was arrested, and its exhibits honoring the “mother of the civil rights movement” include an immersive experience involving a bus-shaped “time machine” that explains how something as simple as taking seat on a bus was anything but for Parks.
Walk half a mile east on Dexter Avenue toward the white-domed capitol building and you’ll encounter Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. Located on the site of a former slave trader’s pen, it became a hub of the movement under King’s leadership. (Tours are currently on hold due to COVID-19, but the website offers virtual tours.) A block away, at the capitol steps, King delivered his rousing “How Long? Not Long” speech at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march.
For lunch, Chris’ Hot Dogs, opened by a Greek immigrant in 1917 and still run by its founding family, is an easy choice. Fronting Dexter Avenue, it has witnessed some of the movement’s most pivotal moments. And folks from Elvis to MLK are among the famous fans of its dogs smothered in a tangy, secret-recipe sauce.
Fill your afternoon hours at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and The Legacy Museum. The Memorial’s massive steel monoliths, suspended from above and etched with the names of more than 6,500 lynching victims, are a moving call for contemplation on the inhumanity of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and racial terrorism. At its companion site, the recently expanded Legacy Museum, compelling video and photo exhibits highlight racial inequality in relation to contemporary issues, including mass incarceration and police violence.
Two blocks away is the Freedom Rides Museum, housed in a former Greyhound bus station, where young people (including a 21-year-old John Lewis) traveling via bus throughout the segregated South as protest, were beaten for their defiance.
Check into the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa, conveniently located downtown. Its access to many of the sites listed here is the big draw, but not the only one. Spacious, luxurious rooms and a full-service spa provide opportunities to relax after a packed day, and a rooftop pool with stellar downtown views scores bonus points.
For dinner, reserve a table amid the intimate ambiance of fine-dining stalwart Vintage Year, where executive chef Eric Rivera’ unfussy approach to upscale cuisine shines in dishes like Gulf snapper and shrimp in parmesan broth with poached marble potatoes and braised spinach.
Wake up early, check out of the hotel and join the line of locals waiting for crispy fried chicken strips and soft scrambled eggs smeared with goat cheese and stacked on a warm, fluffy biscuit at Cahawba House. Drive 40 minutes east to Tuskegee and attend church at Butler Chapel AME Zion Church. This former training site for non-violent demonstrations is still a place of community and worship. Sunday services start at 10:50 a.m. Afterwards, point your car northeast for the two-hour drive home.
If you go
Birmingham is 140 miles west of Atlanta via I-20. Atlanta is 125 miles east of Tuskegee via I-85.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. $15. 520 16th St. N, Birmingham. 866-328-9696, ext. 204, www.bcri.org
16th Street Baptist Church. $10. 1530 6th Ave. N, Birmingham. 205-251-9402, www.16thstreetbaptist.org
Kelly Ingram Park. 500 17th St. N, Birmingham.
Edmund Pettus Bridge. Broad Street and Water Avenue, Selma. 334-875-7241
Lowndes Interpretive Center. Free. 7002 U.S. Highway 80 West, Hayneville. 334-877-1983, www. nps.gov
Rosa Parks Museum. $14. 252 Montgomery St., Montgomery. 334-241-8615, www.troy.edu
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. 454 Dexter Ave., Montgomery. 334-263-3970, dexterkingmemorial.org; dexterkingmemorialtours.org
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and The Legacy Museum. $5. 400 N. Court St., Montgomery. 334-386-9100, www.museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial
Freedom Rides Museum. $5. 210 S. Court St., Montgomery. 334-414-8647, ahc.alabama.gov
Butler Chapel AME Zion Church. 1002 N. Church St., Tuskegee. 334-727-3550, www.butlerchapelamezionchurch.com
Niki’s West. Cafeteria-style meat-and-three with a strong Greek heritage. $15. 233 Finley Ave. W, Birmingham. 205-252 5751 www.nikiswest.com
Chez FonFon. Elegant French bistro in the heart of historic Five Points. Entrees $15-$32. 2007 11th Ave. S, Birmingham. 205-939-3221, www.fonfonbham.com
Moonshine Bar. Rooftop libations at The Elyton Hotel, 1928 1st Ave. N, Birmingham. moonshinebirmingham.com
The Coffee Shoppe. Specialty coffees, pastries and light bites. $2.29-$7.99. 308 Broad St., Selma. 334-878-2739, www.facebook.com/thecoffeeshoppeselma/
Chris’ Hot Dogs. Hot dogs, cheese burgers and crinkle fries. $2.75-$9.65. 138 Dexter Ave., Montgomery. 334-265-6850, https://www.chrishotdogs.com
Vintage Year. Seasonal fine dining. Entrees $15-$40. 405 Cloverdale Road, Montgomery. 334-819-7215, www.vymgm.com
Cahawba House. Meat and three. $10. 31 S. Court St., Montgomery. 334-356-1877, www.cahawbahouse.com
Elyton Hotel. $264 and up. 1928 1st Ave. N, Birmingham. 205-731-3600, www.marriott.com
Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa. $341 and up. 201 Tallapoosa St., Montgomery. 334-481-5000, www.marriott.com
Montgomery Visitor Center. 1 Court Square, Montgomery. 334-262-0013, exploremgm.com
Lee Sentell. The author will sign copies of “The Official United States Civil Rights Trail: What Happened Here Changed the World” 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Feb. 21 in the pre-security area of the Atrium at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.