Alabama getaway!
December 1, 2005 7:17 AM   Subscribe

Civil Rights tour of Alabama, destinations, places to avoid?

Me and the SO want to go on a week-long civil/voting rights tour of Alabama in January. Fly in, rent a car, noodle around, stay in cheap hotels, etc. We're thinking about the Selma - Montgomery - Tuskegee black belt area but this is still up in the air. We have a short list of things we'd like to see, but I've never been to most of Alabama before though I have travelled in the Deep South quite a bit. So, for anyone who has done a similar trip or who lives in the area, is there anything not to miss, or places to avoid entirely? We're on a tight budget and perfectly content to walk around and look at things, so I'd love to hear about interesting streets/neighborhoods as well as good museums and other more tourist-oriented things. Advice on good food, good lodging, hidden delights, also welcome. Thanks.
posted by jessamyn to Travel & Transportation around Alabama (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Birmingham's Civil Rights Institute is very good - much better than the national in Memphis. The art museum in Birmingham is very good too, they have a nice collection and seem to have really engaged curators.
posted by jmgorman at 7:40 AM on December 1, 2005

Ah, the black belt. I grew up there, can tell you all the highlights and dim bulbs! Feel free to email me at pollomacho at hotmail for more detail!

Here's an itinerary:

Arrive Birmingham, rent car. See downtown, scene of hoses and the church bombing.

Drive down 65 to Montgomery (or better yet, the side roads). See Capital, Dexter Street Baptist.

Drive Hwy. 80 to Selma, the route of the march, enter town across Pettis Bridge. Civil rights museum there (right next to the bridge) is run by a hack, militant racist, but may have some good pictures with made up captions. Tour Selma, including the antebellum mansions and Brown chapel in the projects and get a feel for the real disparity between poor blacks and rich whites. Walk across the bridge to the city limits, it was at this point that the marchers took that one fateful step that put them in the county sheriff's jurisdiction and lead to the chaos. It was also at this point that a murdered voting rights activist was left as a message.

Next drive west, stop in Demopolis, an interesting town founded by colleagues of Lafayette who wanted in on the American experiment. On through the real black belt towns of Eutaw and/or Greensboro and then up to Tuscaloosa where you can have amazing BBQ and see the spot where George Wallace barred the doorway of the registrar's office as well as the stadium where real integration came because the Bear was tired of losing to integrated teams.

Finally return to B'ham and home.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:48 AM on December 1, 2005 [2 favorites]

Last year while in Alabama visiting family, my dad and I drove to Birmingham and wandered around. We spent time in Kelly Ingram Park, where a lot of marchers were fire-hosed in the 60s. There are pretty stunning sculptures in the park now that portray some of those awful scenes. We ended up meeting a homeless Vietnam Vet who grew up in Birmingham and was one of those marchers. He gave us a really amazing tour of the park.

Right behind the park is the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is on nearby. as well.

Right outside of Birmingham we had lunch in Irondale at the Whistlestop Cafe. We were there on a Sunday and it was filled with locals just out of church. There were fried green tomatoes and lots of Fannie Flagg books for sale. I'd definitely recommend it.
posted by jdl at 8:07 AM on December 1, 2005

I always wanted to visit Muscle Shoals Ala, in Colbert County. It's the original home of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, where Aretha Franklin made a lot of her 60s-era recordings. (I know, not specifically civil-rights related, but interesting nonetheless.)
posted by lilboo at 9:09 AM on December 1, 2005

Jesse Owens Park in Oakville (north Alabama) is worthwhile and unique.
posted by kickerofelves at 9:12 AM on December 1, 2005

If you go to Tuscaloosa, UA's special collections library has some interesting photographs from the era, and sometimes has an exhibit worth checking out.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 9:45 AM on December 1, 2005

Also, 10 miles south of Eutaw Alabama on US 43 is a the Bird Farm, a dude that has huge hay sculptures, pretty cool stuff.

Birmingham's Garage Cafe is a nice place to grab a drink. Its a bar with a cool back patio with cement sculptures and lawn art all over the place.

One place i've always wanted to visit is not far from Selma, Alabama's first state capitol that is now a ghost town, Cahawba, its been abandoned for over 100 years.

Theres also unclaimed baggage, Kentuck, and Moundville, anyway, i could talk forever this neck of the woods...
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 10:11 AM on December 1, 2005

lilboo: I grew up in Colbert County. I can't imagine why anyone would want to visit there (well at least until you have seen EVERYTHING else in the world.) Although the virtual tour is crappy it more than represents the inside of that studio.

I just had to post because I actually know more than the metafilter crowd does about something!
posted by elastic.scorn at 10:20 AM on December 1, 2005

Unclaimed baggage, while fucking incredible, is a LOOOOONG haul from Selma. Alabama Thrift store in Alabaster, however is on the way from B'ham to Montgomery. While not quite the same, still your one-stop-shop for ironic hipster fashions.

Muscle Shoals is not in the region and a little out of the way.

Cahawba is pretty cool, but remember, its abandoned and there are no standing buildings remaining. Just a lot of dirt roads and spanish moss, well, and a couple of old alligators op in some of the Cahawba river bayous.

Moundville, again, abandoned site, but still pretty interesting and on the way.

The Bird farm (as in Jim Bird, the owner/creator) YYYW speaks of above is in Forkland.

I second the Garage Bar and B'ham's Civil Rights museum.

The attractions to look out for are often on the side of the roads. Remember this is a VERY rural and VERY impoverished region. You need to look for the hand painted "fish sammige $1" signs and such. This is not fast paced living or instant entertainment. This is a place where the big town has a couple thousand tops! What you're looking for are the civil war cemeteries tucked back in the woods where all the graves in every direction say "Unknown" and the Spanish moss hangs all the way to the ground. Once you are there you are just going to say, "yep, that's where it happened" and then you'll buy a coke and some boiled peanuts and roll on down the road to the next thing to look at. If you go there, you are going to want to go through places like Lower Peach Tree via the cable ferry.

OOH, damnit, that's it, there's a day trip from Selma or Montgomery! You drive down to Hayneville, where Jonathan Daniels was killed, head west towards Camden, cross the river at Lower Peach Tree, back up to Selma! Hell, you could even drive down to Monroeville, home of Harper Lee and True, and setting of her (his) book To Kill A Mockingbird!

Oh, a couple more things, I know you will be extremely sensitive, but the Civil Rights era, racism and poverty are very touchy subjects in the Black Belt. Some will be glad to talk about it, but others may not take kindly to strangers poking around about that stuff, just be kind and careful.

The other thing is that the Black Belt is full of paper mills. Now, I know this sounds like a minor concern, but because of the high number of mills, when the wind shifts, some of the towns can tend to have a certain, je ne sais quoi, except je sais that it is a big stinky paper mill blowing its big stink across town, and good lord is it bad. It seems to be worst on misty mornings when you'd like to be out enjoying the day before the blistering sun sets up to boil your brains out. Just breathe deep, enjoy the farty air and plaster that friendly smile back on your face. The fried pork products tend to make particularly stinky mornings easier.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:13 AM on December 1, 2005

Two of my colleagues, one a native of Alabama, have led academic Civil Rights tours of the south. Check you email, I'll put you in touch.
posted by LarryC at 12:23 PM on December 1, 2005

I'm embarassed to say that I've lived in Montgomery since birth and have never spent any real time doing the civil rights tour thing. I don't know... I feel like the same people who wanted MLK dead are now making a buck off him.

But you should check out the Civil Rights Memorial in front of the Southern Poverty Law Center. That's in downtown Montgomery, of course. I might be able to show you the house George Wallace was living in when he died.

There's the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. Never been inside, I'm afraid. I have a rather strange relationship with my hometown. But just down the street from the museum is a house where Helen Keller (Alabama's most beloved commie!) spent some time.

The one place I always encourage visitors to see is The House of Crosses. Words can't do it justice. It's creepy and spectacular and crappy all at the same time. Bring lots of flash memory for your camera.

Also, it's not widely known, but Seven Bridges Road is actually here in Montgomery. If you're an Eagles fan, you can't pass up the chance to drive down it.

A note on Camden: I believe that was the site of a dispute, some decades back, between blacks and whites regarding a riverboat. It seems that the only way for some residents to get from point A to point B was to take the riverboat. Of course the residents in question were black and the riverboat owners/operators were white. I'm sure you can guess the rest.

Recently, I've heard, there was an effort to get the river boat up and running again. Not sure what became of that.

I'm sure there's a lot of stuff I'm leaving out and I didn't have time to include links. I'm scheduled to go provide tech support for a friend, so I'll have to wrap this up. But I'll ask around, think about it, and try to post more info. Also, you're welcome to email me privately and I'll be glad to play tourguide when you pass through.
posted by Clay201 at 1:39 PM on December 1, 2005

Birmingham's Garage Cafe is a nice place to grab a drink. Its a bar with a cool back patio with cement sculptures and lawn art all over the place.?

I heard so much about that place that when I finally moved to birmingham I wasn't too impressed. But it grows on you and I ended up spending quite a bit of time there. At night it's really unique.

Green Top on the road from b'ham to sumiton is wonderful, but a little out of the way.
posted by justgary at 2:06 PM on December 1, 2005

I actually just spent a week in Montgomery, so I can give some pointers for that. Birmingham & Selma, not at all, but still:

As others have noted, the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery is pretty amazing; I was very moved, and I tend to be pretty jaded and cynical about most things.

Right around the corner from it is Dr. King's church, (Dexter Baptist, as mentioned above) which is also worth a stop.

Actually, at the memorial, iirc, they have a little diagram of maybe 5-10 important civil rights locations all within only a mile or two. That could certainly lead to the rest of your day in Montgomery (don't know how long you would spend there.)

There's also a Rosa Parks museum / library, but I didn't go there, so I can't really speak to it.

Actually, the nice ladies at the Montgomery Visitors' Center were EXTREMELY helpful. Probably worth stopping in to ask them for some suggestions.

Not civil rights-related, but also in downtown Montgomery, is the Hank Williams (senior, thank you very much) museum, which contains, among other things, his death car.

Also, if you have time, go get fried chicken at Martin's (1796 Carter Hill Road). Best I've ever had. It's in a strip mall, but don't let that stop you. Really. Classic southern meat-and-three kind of place.

Oh, and if you're spending the night in Montgomery, there's an after hours jazz club called "Sous La Terre" downtown (corner of Dexter & Bibb, I think) that doesn't even open 'til about 1AM and has the strongest drinks in town, and two old guys who know-- and play-- every standard you could ever ask. It's a "private club," though, so you have to buy a membership to get in. It was 8 bucks the night I was there.

And, finally, stay away from the ring roads that circle the city. South Blvd / East Blvd., etc. (US hwy 80/82, if memory serves). Worst traffic patterns I've ever had the misfortune to get caught up it. I think every time I drive around that road I saw at least one horrible accident.

posted by dersins at 2:19 PM on December 1, 2005

Oh, and if you're up in Tuscaloosa at all, right across the river in Northport, AL is Archibald's BBQ (1211 Martin Luther King), where I had the second best BBQ of my life.
posted by dersins at 2:22 PM on December 1, 2005

Yes, Archibald's, yes, you must if you end up in Tuscaloosa, you must. Forget Dreamland, Archibald's.

One more thing I thought of for Montgomery, totally not civil rights related, but definitely worth a see is the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Year round, fantastic, world class Shakespeare productions. Not to be missed if you are going to stay in Montgomery.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:12 AM on December 2, 2005


I second the Shakespeare festival. It's not the sort of thing you expect to find in Montgomery, Alabama. And they've recently added (a? the? some?) botanical gardens.


I used to eat at Martin's once a week when I worked in that strip mall. The sad thing is, I couldn't eat the fried chicken for health reasons. I got the baked instead.
posted by Clay201 at 10:17 AM on December 2, 2005

In Selma for lunch, downtown - the Downtowner (or alternately and similarly, but lesser to some extent, the Brown Bag)- sweet tea, glad handing politicians, meat and three place. You may have to share a table with a road crew, a preacher and a slick lawyer, makes for good conversation at least and the food is pretty decent too!
posted by Pollomacho at 11:23 AM on December 2, 2005

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