Take a road trip through Alabama’s civil rights history
National history and family heritage connect on the new U.S. Civil Rights Trail.
"The lemonade ain’t ready yet, sweetie,” the cashier says. “We got sweet tea, though.”
It’s 11 a.m. at Eagle’s restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama. I can see women in the kitchen squeezing the juice out of bright yellow lemons into a giant plastic vat. This wasn’t going to be some Country Time powdered mix. It was going to be fresh.
A soul food joint just off I-65 in the northern part of the city, Eagle’s has been Black-owned and family-operated since it opened its doors in 1951, 40 years before I was born. On the walls are faded pictures of the athletes and politicians who’ve dined here. It’s early for this buffet of oxtails, black-eyed peas, mac and cheese, collard greens, candied yams, and spaghetti in tomato sauce. But since my dad and I have only just begun our Alabama road trip, the novelty of having soul food for every meal is overpowering. I order the sweet tea. [Read about the food of the American Civil Rights movement.]
A bust of Martin Luther King, Jr., keeps the dream alive at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, in Selma. The church was the starting point for the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches in 1965.
My father sits at one of the restaurant’s six vinyl booths, eyeglasses lifted onto his forehead, squinting down at a Google map on his iPhone that traces our path from Birmingham to Selma to Montgomery. I’ve never been to the Deep South before, but I’m here now to visit historic sites along the recently inaugurated U.S. Civil Rights Trail, a conceptual pathway that links 130 museums, churches, courthouses, and other places that have contributed to the advancement of social equality in this country.
The trail includes Topeka, Kansas—the site of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case—and Memphis, Tennessee, where, just a few weeks prior to my trip, thousands of people flocked to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, death and to mark the opening of the new National Civil Rights Museum in the Lorraine Motel where King was assassinated.
Nearly a quarter of the trail’s sites are in Alabama, a place many consider ground zero for the civil rights movement. The trail covers the attacks on Freedom Riders, the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March, and the Montgomery street corner where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Birmingham itself was nicknamed “Bombingham” in the 1950s for the sticks of dynamite set off by racists at the homes of Black activists and at public gathering spaces, including the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young girls lost their lives.
I break a piece of cornbread and watch steam rise from the middle. My family has roots below the Mason-Dixon line, but I’m a die-hard Brooklyn girl who spent my adolescent years pretending to be from the Caribbean, because that’s where most of the Black kids in my elementary school were from. They’d always tease me that, as a Black American, I had “no culture.” And for a while, I believed them. It had me questioning early on what it meant to be not just Black in America, but to be Black and American.
I think about that now, sitting here in Eagle’s, eating food prepared by women who remind me of women in my own family. This food is so clearly of a culture, with a specific way to be enjoyed. I know to bow my head and thank the hands that prepared it before I eat it; I know to put hot sauce on the mac and cheese, a little vinegar on the greens; I know that when I’m done, I’ll probably need a nap. It’s this knowledge that makes the South seem like home to me, despite my geographical distance from the region. I sensed it immediately at Eagle’s, an unspoken message: “I see you, respect you, affirm you.”
I’m road tripping with my dad to see if this kind of deep-seated connectedness is something I’ll find throughout Alabama. And I’m on a quest to bridge what I have learned about Black history and culture with what I can feel of it in a place steeped in the foods, religion, and rich traditions of my people.
On our way out of Eagle’s, the cashier rushes over with a cup of lemonade. “It’s on the house, sweetie,” she says. I smile. I’ve just gotten my first taste of Southern hospitality.
In Birmingham, we stay at the 14-story Redmont, Alabama’s oldest operating hotel. It’s all about vaulted ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and doormen who still wear pillbox hats and jackets. Typically I’d find this charming. But now the period details are a reminder that back when the Redmont was built, in 1925, my father and I wouldn’t have been able to get a room. Instead, we would have been directed to the Gaston Motel, one of the numerous businesses owned by A.G. Gaston, an Alabama native who, by 1960, was considered the “richest Black man in America.”
Bombed once, the Gaston was a meeting point for civil rights marchers. Room 30, where King stayed, was notably dubbed the “war room.” Situated near Fourth Avenue, the motel anchored this historic Black business sector, which saw its height during the civil rights era but traces its roots to the early 1900s. At that time, locals and those passing through could find places to rest and eat, and maybe get a haircut or shoe shine. There are plans to rehabilitate the long-shuttered motel as an annex to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. [Consider what if Martin Luther King Jr. were never assassinated.]
Little remains of Fourth Avenue’s vitality. At Green Acres Cafe, one of the last remaining Black-owned businesses from the civil rights era, we order fish sandwiches—whiting fried hard, doused in hot sauce and ketchup, between two slices of white bread, just the way I’d had them growing up. We sit on a bench outside to eat. I imagine a Fourth Avenue as it once was: Black folks shopping, dining, being enterprising, being. I am struck by the power in this conjured scene.
“You know Black people invented bed-and-breakfasts, right?” my father says as we drive to Selma, less than two hours south of Birmingham.
I tilt my head to the side, “For real?”.
“Well, not exactly. It’s just my theory, because we could never stay nowhere. That’s what the Green Book was for, so we’d know exactly where to go and not to go.”
The Negro Motorist Green Book was an annual guide for African-American road-trippers. Published by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green, the book was made up of personal testimonials from one Black traveler to another. Readers could flip through pages of recommended establishments to discover where they could have a warm meal—not just the fried chicken they’d stashed in a shoe box in case the next eatery serving Black folks was miles away—or where they could use a real bathroom, instead of going by the side of the road, or in a “pee can.” Rest stops were a no-go, as were certain cities after dark. Those were called Sundown Towns, and the Green Book advised Black travelers to drive on.
My father and I have spent lots of time together in cars, driving up and down highways and parkways in the northeast, shuttling groceries and antique furniture to and from the five bed-and-breakfasts my family operates. The only fight we ever get into is over the radio: I always want a hip hop station, he insists on NPR. While we haven’t felt particularly unsafe on the road in Alabama, my father does make a point of putting on his U.S. Navy Veteran hat before we go out each day. [Discover more than 1,000 streets honoring Martin Luther King Jr. around the world.]
Only six in 1964, when Jim Crow laws ended in the South, my father experienced the civil rights movement mainly by watching Dr. King give speeches on TV. During the annual road trips he and his family took to South Carolina to visit relatives, he would see signs declaring “You Are Now Entering Klan Territory,” and he’d be filled with a fear he didn’t understand because, on the East Coast Army bases where he grew up, pecking order was based more on military rank than race. “Everyone was cool with everyone, especially the kids,” he said. “Black, white, it didn’t matter.”
As we approach Selma, a small town of around 18,000 people, I shoot a text to Thelma Dianne Harris, a 69-year-old Selma native and former student activist in the Voting Rights March. Ms. Harris now offers tours of Selma’s civil rights landmarks; I found her on Facebook, and we’ve been talking over the phone for a few weeks. She had helped me track down a Black-owned homestay in town.
I meet her on the steps of Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, the starting point for the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. She’s a petite woman with a soft voice and warm smile. Her hair, makeup, and clothes are styled in a careful way that reminds me of every older woman in my family. We hug like best friends.
“Welcome to Selma,” she says, proudly.
Throughout our journey, my father keeps saying that the places we’re visiting are on “hallowed ground.” It becomes his mantra. Inside Brown Chapel, we take seats in a wooden pew near the front. The wood is worn down to a softness that makes me think about the bodies that once filled these same seats. What were they feeling when they sat here? Joy? Anger? Mourning? Righteousness? All were possible in the civil rights era, when the church wasn’t just a place to go for Sunday service but a safe space to organize demonstrations and share resources. It’s why churches were, and are, targets of hate groups determined to thwart progress and spread fear.
Later that afternoon, Ms. Harris brings us to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “I remember the day so well,” she says. “I was 15.” She’s referring to March 7, 1965, or “Bloody Sunday.” That day, some 600 demonstrators attempted to cross the Pettus Bridge on a march from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights.
The demonstrators’ plan was to march to the capitol building in Montgomery and bring their case directly to Alabama Governor George Wallace. When they got to the bridge, which sits at the edge of Selma’s city limits, “there was a mob, and they started attacking marchers at the front, beating them with bats and pipes. There was tear gas in the air,” she tells us.
Ms. Harris was marching with her brother and they started running, trailed by a policeman on horseback. “All I kept telling myself was ‘just get back to the church, just get back to the church.’” Fourteen days later, on March 21, demonstrators successfully crossed the bridge, arriving in Montgomery on March 25. Ms. Harris was among the 25,000 demonstrators in Montgomery that day.
As a young girl, I knew the civil rights movement as names, places, and dates I needed to memorize to pass quizzes during Black History Month. But listening to Ms. Harris’s stories, this distant history seems suddenly tangible.
A statue depicts a slave family in chains at the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
The next morning, we wake up in the home Ms. Harris helped us find. It’s a shotgun-style house with a coziness that feels like families have made memories here. Of all the places we would stay in Alabama, this will be our favorite. Although our host, Mark, isn’t physically there, his presence is everywhere. There are little notes on the fridge and cabinets that encourage us to help ourselves to snacks. When we check out, I’ll foolishly leave my ID behind, and Mark will priority-mail it to my Brooklyn apartment. When I email him to say thank you, he replies with a nod to the world of Black Panther, “That’s what we do in Wakanda. We look out for each other.”
I read online that the Old Live Oak Cemetery, not too far away, is dripping in Spanish moss and I decide we have to check it out.
Driving up the gravel entrance to the cemetery, we see a lot of moss—as well as Confederate flags neatly dotting every grave in sight. When the wind blows, they flap in a flurry of red. They seem to me like flags of a foreign country.
We discover a headstone for Edmund Pettus, for whom the bridge was named. The stone indicates that he was a general in the Confederacy; above the inscription is an iron Ku Klux Klan cross. Pettus was a Grand Dragon of the KKK.
As we walk further into the cemetery, we run into a towering statue of a Confederate soldier, north-facing cannons, and a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan. We are standing at Confederate Circle, a commemorative plot commissioned in 1877.
Are these flags and statues reminders of an ugly racist past, or are they emblems of a history we should never forget? I have trouble divorcing the heritage from the hate. Student groups in Selma have rallied to remove the Forrest statue, but the land has long been managed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group that says it “totally denounces any individual or group that promotes racial divisiveness or white supremacy,” and only wants to “honor the memory” of their ancestors. As my father and I pull out of Live Oak, a woman sitting idly in a car near the monument smiles and waves at us. I notice the UDC logo is printed on her car’s fuel door.
The last city on our Southern road trip is Montgomery, where we arrange a tour with Michelle Browder, a painter and activist who was raised in Alabama, and who founded I Am More Than..., a non-profit organization that helps young people gain entrepreneurial skills and training as tour guides. Browder is a boisterous Black woman with big hair and a bright red pair of cat-eye glasses. She’s sharp, candid, and seemingly knows everyone in Montgomery. We climb into her golf cart, which sports a decal of her signature glasses. She takes us to the Court Square-Dexter Avenue Historic District and explains that it’s a hotbed of history—the Winter Building, which sits on the circle, is where the telegram calling for the strike on Fort Sumter, which triggered the Civil War, was transmitted. Rosa Parks was arrested on the opposite corner and, most jarring for me, the entire circle was once where Black bodies were auctioned off during the slave trade.
Browder swings her cart up Dexter Avenue near the Alabama State Capitol grounds to cut across town. As she does, we notice at least 25 men standing on the Capitol lawn. Long-haired and dressed in leather, they each carry large Confederate and Alabama state flags. A man declares through a bullhorn that his “right to carry guns shouldn’t be hindered by liberals.”
Then we look to our right and see a party of people dressed in traditional Civil War-era clothing filling the lawn of the First White House of the Confederacy, which served as the executive residence of President Jefferson Davis when Montgomery was the capital of the Confederate States of America. It’s at least 85 degrees outside, and men are in three-piece suits and top hats. Women wear big hoop skirts and intricate lace blouses. The scene is surreal. Sandwiched by both gatherings, I feel torn between past and present.
Browder turns to us. “I’m embarrassed,” she says. All afternoon she’d been showing us around her city, telling us how far they had come: the newly renovated retail and community space in the once segregated Kress department store, the work Bryan Stevenson is doing at the Equal Justice Initiative, headquartered in downtown Montgomery. Real progress, often complicated.
“I think I know what will make us feel better,” Browder says, restarting her cart. We putter wordlessly across a few avenues and stop at the Malden Brothers Barber Shop, where Martin Luther King, Jr., regularly had his haircut. The space is quiet, save for the hum of the clippers. The wood-paneled walls are cluttered with pictures of King and the many other notable individuals who’ve had their hair cut here. There are posters from President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign beside a vintage “Colored Waiting Room” sign.
“How y’all doing this afternoon?” the barber asks us, dusting away stray hairs from the neck of his client with a soft brush. The familiarity of the place eases the disquiet of moments before. I’m not sure how to answer, so I nod and say “Doing alright.”
My road trip has been a seesaw of the familiar and the strange. The Civil Rights Trail is a powerful testimony to the legacy of my people’s perseverance. It says to those who fought, and continue to fight, injustice: I see you. I respect you. I affirm you. But if this journey has taught me anything, other than that I really like hush puppies and sweet tea, it’s that in America it’s possible to feel wholly at home and yet strangely removed at the same time.
As my father and I head back north, I remember something a woman I met at Selma’s Brown Chapel said, lamenting the decline in church membership. “A lot of young people have moved to bigger cities for work, or they just aren’t interested in coming,” she said. “We wish they knew this was a place for them. Perhaps things would be better if they did.”
In her words I hear a message that extends beyond the church and beyond Alabama. The message is partly an open invitation: When you journey into the past, you gain a glimpse into the future. Make it better.