Montgomery, Alabama: The South's Capital City
By Shady Hartshorne and Laurie Ellis
We started with the idea of going to an AA Baseball game in each of the four major cities in Alabama: Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile.
More and more Major League Baseball players are making the jump directly from AA to the big leagues and you can see these future stars in intimate stadiums at reasonable prices.
We thought we’d see a few sights in Alabama, eat some grits and biscuits & gravy, pig out on barbeque and drink a lot of sweet tea, but what we experienced in Alabama really knocked our socks off and left us planning our next visit at the soonest possible opportunity.
We highly recommend “Off the Beaten Path: Alabama” by Gay N. Martin (published by Insiders Guides) and we also brought John Sickels’ Prospect Guide so we could read up on all the great baseball players we’d be seeing.
Continuing south after our visits to Huntsville and Birmingham, we rolled into the capital of Alabama, Montgomery.
Founded in 1819 when the two rival towns of NewPhiladelphia and East Alabama Town merged, Montgomery became the state capital in 1846.
The long list of historic events that took place here justifies their slogan: “Courageous… Visionary… Rebellious.” Whether you’re interested in the Civil War or Civil Rights, Shakespeare, Country Music or Baseball, you’ll find it in Montgomery.
The Visitor Center
With so much to see, your first stop should be the Visitor Center located right downtown in historic Union Station. You can get all the information you need to plan your visit and right outside you can pick up the Trolley that takes you to almost every attraction in the City. (Adult Day Passes will set you back $1.00)
As the state capital, the original capital of the Confederacy, and the birthplace of the modern American civil rights movement, Montgomery has always been a magnet for historic events.
For example, the Empire Theater where a 14-year old Hank Williams won an amateur talent contest in 1937 is the same spot where Rosa Parks took her famous bus ride in 1955.
The Capitol Building is the site from which the orders to fire on Fort Sumter – and trigger our country’s bloodiest conflict – were telegraphed in 1861.
It is also where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “How long? Not Long!” speech after the long Selma to Montgomery march in 1965.
“We are on the move now. Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom.”
Civil Rights Memorials
The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church is the only church in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. actually served as a minister and it was in the basement of that church that the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott – triggered by Rosa Parks’ arrest – was launched in 1955.
Dr. King was only 25 years old when he came to lead the church. Ironically, he was chosen by the search committee because he seemed less radical than his predecessor, the Rev. Vernon Johns, whose fiery calls for racial equality built the foundation for the great events that would follow.
A visit to the Dexter Avenue Parsonage Museum lets you take a tour of the house in which Dr. King and his family lived from 1954-1960. The Parsonage housed other pastors until 1992 but in 2003, the interior was carefully restored to look just as it did when the Kings lived there.
As you walk past the 1950s-era phone, picture it ringing dozens of times a day with death threats against Dr. King and his family.
Late one night, after a particularly menacing call, Dr. King had a crisis of confidence. You can stand in the kitchen where he had the famous Kitchen Experience described in his memoir “Stride Toward Freedom” (1958)
“It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
The Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center was designed by Maya Lin.
Three days later, the home was bombed. Dr. King was away at a meeting, but his wife Coretta and their 10 week-old daughter, Yolanda were home that night with a friend.
Luckily, they had the quick thinking to run to the back of the house when they heard a strange noise on the front porch. The bomb was so powerful it left an imprint in the concrete floor of the porch that is still visible today.
The Rosa Parks Museum is located on the site where the old Empire Theater used to stand and contains a moving recreation of Ms. Parks’ famous ride using a multimedia experience that takes you “back in time” to 1955.
The exhibits chronicle every aspect of the 381-day boycott. You’ll learn about E.D. Nixon, the head of the NAACP who bailed Rosa Parks out of jail.
Ms. Parks was certainly not the first person to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat, but Nixon decided to use that case to mobilize Montgomery’s black community. He organized local ministers to form the Montgomery Improvement Association and chose a reluctant Martin Luther King to lead it.
One of the most moving memorials in Montgomery is the Civil Rights Memorial at the headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Designed by Maya Lin, who also created the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, it consists of a horizontal black marble slab engraved with the names of 48 victims of the struggle.
The surface of the slab is constantly bathed in a thin layer of running water creating a soothing, meditative sound and adding an interactive tactile experience as you run your fingers over the names.
The second part of the memorial continues the metaphor of running water with an engraved excerpt from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in which he quotes the Book of Amos 5:24, “…we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Inside the Memorial building, a short film describes some of the brutal history of the Civil Rights Movement and the origins of the SPLC. The film is unflinching in its descriptions so parents with young children should be prepared.
In 1981 their old headquarters was firebombed by the KKK so it’s no wonder the SPLC doesn’t pull any punches in its fight for human rights and justice around the world.
After passing through the exhibits, you come to the Wall of Tolerance, a giant screen projecting a slow-moving waterfall of the names of those who have taken the Tolerance Pledge. You can type your name into one of the keyboards and, in moments, your name will come cascading down along with all the others.
Whenever you return, you can search for your name to show children or grandchildren that you’ve taken the pledge.
If you and your family are considering a visit to any of the historic civil rights memorials in Alabama, you should plan to do it soon because there is still a possibility that you might be able to meet and talk with someone who was actually there during the struggle. This window of time is rapidly closing.
Shakespeare in the South
In Blount Cultural Park, a beautiful expanse of green grass, shade trees and ponds in the eastern part of the city, you’ll find the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Montgomery’s theatrical treasure.
Rescued from oblivion in 1985 by the generosity of Carolyn and Wynton Blount, the Festival produces a year-long variety of theatrical works by Shakespeare and other great playwrights on its 3 stages.
The 750-seat Festival Stage hosts the larger productions, while workshops and more intimate productions can be held in the 225-seat Octagon.
For outdoor productions, the Shakespeare Garden showcases plants and flowers featured in Shakespeare’s works and has a 325-seat amphitheater with rock-ledge seats.
Theater lovers will want to call ahead for a backstage tour of the state of the art prop shot, set design and costume areas. The ASF also hosts a number of summer camp programs for children from grades 4-12.
Each spring the ASF also hosts the Southern Writers Project which “celebrates the rich cultural heritage of the southern storyteller.”
Works chosen for the festival are read and produced during the festival weekend in May and include many world premieres by emerging young playwrights such as Mark Saltzman and Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder.
Hank Williams Museum
Originally founded by Cecil Jackson in 1999 – Hank Williams bought him a coke when he was 8 years old – the museum is now run by Cecil’s daughter Beth Birtley who continues her late father’s dedicated service to the memory of the Father of Contemporary Country Music.
The museum features the 1952 baby blue Cadillac in which Hank Williams died on New Year’s Day 1953 along with information about Hank’s backing band, the Drifting Cowboys, and 13 of Hank’s “Nudie Suits” made by Nudie’s of Hollywood.
You’ll also find autographed albums, platinum albums, guitars, microphones and personal effects that allow you to learn more about the man behind the legend.
If you’re a die-hard Hank Williams fan, you can visit his boyhood home just 62 miles south of Montgomery in the town of Georgiana.
Montgomery’s newest attraction for visitors is The Alley, an open-air pedestrian mall lined with stores, bars and restaurants like Dreamland Barbeque where we enjoyed their fantastic Banana Pudding.
Right around the corner, the Exchange is the bar at the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa where you can sit outside enjoying live music and happy hour drinks. For a more casual atmosphere, check out the Montgomery Brewing Company that features great food along with their wide array of hand-crafted brews.
You might also be able to catch some outdoor music at one of the many festivals that take place on the Riverwalk, a scenic stretch of land on the banks of the Alabama River. That’s the place where the riverboat Harriott II picks up passengers for nightly two-hour cruises up and down the river.
Old Alabama Town
We also enjoyed a visit to Old Alabama Town, a collection of over 40 late 19th and early 20th century buildings that have been relocated and restored to depict the life of the people who settled and developed central Alabama.
A tour of the “town” features presentations from historic interpreters like the school teacher who proudly explains his use of the latest pedagogical technique called, “Rote Learning.” You can also see an old drug store, a cotton gin and a blacksmith shop.
Riverwalk Stadium is the home of the Montgomery Biscuits.
Of course, we took in a AA baseball game – the Montgomery Biscuits versus the Mississippi Braves.
Unfortunately, we didn’t bring our customary good luck to the home team. The Biscuits were clobbered by the Braves 12-1.
But we did enjoy the atmosphere at Riverwalk Stadium where they launch biscuits into the stands between innings. The park was rated #1 by Baseball America Magazine and it’s fun to watch the freight trains pass behind the scoreboard during the game.
We were told the Mayor of Montgomery originally offered a cash award to any player who hit a train with a home run, but he had to rescind the pledge because so many of them did it.
There’s a lot more to see and do in Montgomery: the Governor’s Mansion, the First White House of the Confederacy, as well as the Tuskegee Institute just a few miles out of town, but we had to move on to the next stop on our tour, Mobile, the home of Mardi Gras in America.
Husband and wife team Shady Hartshorne and Laurie Ellis of Arlington, Massachusetts are among our most adventurous travel writers. Whether it’s open-water swimming in the British Virgin Islands, house-boating on the Suwannee River, zip lining in Costa Rica or soaring over the Grand Canyon in a Maverick helicopter, they go the extra mile to bring us great stories from all over the world. They live in Arlington, Mass.