By Saul Schwartz
Over three days, my wife Fern and I enjoyed the diverse sites of Alabama, traveling from South to North. Although originally planned as a Civil Rights trip, we ended up seeing much more during our first trip to Alabama. The triumphs and tragedies that took place in Alabama during the 1950s and 1960s are described on Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail website.
Southern Alabama Attractions
Selma is smaller than we thought both in terms of population (around 21,000) and the size of the downtown area.
Temple Mishkan Israel (503 Broad Street):
Our one-hour tour led by Ronnie Leet was one of the highlights of our entire trip. For more than 120 years, the Temple has stood on Broad Street in the heart of downtown Selma. Today Ronnie is one of the three remaining Jewish members of the congregation. Contributions to the tour are being used to preserve and restore the stunning landmark building.
The building was constructed in 1899. The Romanesque Revival exterior features two symmetrical towers and a raised octagonal roof over the sanctuary. The front of the building displays a Star of David-stained glass window above the ached entry. The interior contains many beautiful stained-glass windows with religious scenes, which are uncommon in Jewish Temples. Fern and I found the building most like several European synagogues.
Ronnie explained how Jews were prominent in local Selma government (including three mayors) and that downtown Selma was full of Jewish merchants throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At its peak, the congregation had a full-time Rabbi and membership peaked at over 100 households. The congregation is part of the Jewish Reform movement.
Ronnie was 14 at the time of the Selma voting rights marches. He explained how his family and the Congregation lived in fear of potential violence during those weeks. As a result, under the leadership of the Temple’s Rabbi, the congregation did not actively participate in the marches. Ronnie explained that throughout most of his life in Selma, he did not experience incidents of anti-Semitism in Selma. www.SelmaTemple.org.
Edmund Pettus Bridge (on business route 80):
It was here that voting rights marchers were violently confronted by law enforcement personnel on March 7, 1965. The march resumed on March 21, 1965, with court protection from Selma to Montgomery. The bridge is now a national historic landmark.
Feeling much emotion, we walked over the steel arch bridge which has views of the Alabama River on both sides. Ironically the bridge is named after a former Confederate general; there is a proposal to rename the bridge after civil rights leader John Lewis. Unfortunately, the Selma interpretive center at the base of the bridge is currently closed.
We had an informal lunch at The Coffee Shop, a specialty coffee and eatery at 308 Broad Street. This is a convenient spot in downtown Selma with a wide variety of coffees and teas and a limited food menu. On the walls are pictures of notable politicians and civil rights leaders who have visited Selma and the shop from all over the world. The wait staff was very friendly!
Montgomery is the site of many civil rights sites, but we only had time to see a few. With a population around 200,000, it is the state’s third largest city.
Alabama State Capitol (600 Dexter Avenue):
By appointment, the Capitol provides a tour guide without charge. Metered parking is available on Union Street, where the tour began at the back entrance. Our guide Tim was exceptionally knowledgeable and provided us with a comprehensive prospective of Alabama. He answered all our questions during a 45-minute tour.
The legislature no longer meets in this building. Rather, it functions as a working museum and houses the office of the Governor. Tim showed us around the restored areas which included the original Senate and House chambers, the Old Supreme Court and the Rotunda. Looking up in the Rotunda, the second floor contains eight large scale colorful murals made by Roderick MacKenzie depicting episodes from Alabama history.
The Capitol was the destination of the march from Selma to Montgomery. Tim explained how Governor Wallace did not allow the marchers to head onto the Capitol grounds. Here Dr. King made one of his great speeches to an estimated 25,000 people. Outside the Capitol the grounds contain monuments, gardens, and sculptures.
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (354 Dexter Avenue):
Unfortunately, the church is not currently open for walk-up tours. The church sits just one block below the Capitol building. Construction of the church began in 1883. The handsome red brick structure was renamed to honor former pastor and civil rights icon, Martin Luther King, Jr. The church building is smaller than we imagined.
The meetings to launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott were held in the basement of the church on December 2, 1955. Dr. King directed activities of the boycott from his office inside the church. On June 3, 1974, the church was designated a national historic landmark. We were able to walk around the building, but we could not go inside.
Dexter Parsonage Museum (309 South Jackson Street):
The parsonage, once the home of Martin Luther King, was bombed several times during the struggle for civil rights. We stopped by at a time when the museum house was either not open or closed due to COVID. The outside of the house has been restored and it appears as it did when Dr. King and his family resided there from 1954 to 1960. We parked on the street in the neighborhood and took a few pictures of the humble house and the parsonage building next door.
Birmingham is slightly bigger than Montgomery; it is currently the state’s second biggest city in population (over 200,000 residents).
Railroad Park (1st Avenue South between 14th and 18th Streets):
Opened in 2010, the Park is a pleasant green space near the downtown. Called “Birmingham’s Living Room”, the Park contains several walking trails and several ponds. We had a nice walk throughout the small park watching many residents enjoy the outdoors. From the park, we could see remnants of Birmingham’s industrial past, including a former processing plant.
Kelly Ingram Park (500 17th Street, North):
The park served as a central staging ground for large scale demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Today the park contains powerful sculptures related to civil rights. Kelly Ingram was an African American firefighter who was the first sailor in the U.S. Navy killed in World War 1.
In the center of the park, there is a dramatic sculpture of a teenage boy being attacked by the police and a dog. The sculpture was dedicated in May 1995. This sculpture depicts an actual scene from the Children’s Crusade in 1963. Additional monuments honor foot civil rights foot soldiers.
Unfortunately, before we were able to fully explore the park, we were literally chased away by an aggressive homeless man. It appears that the park is now a site frequently more by the homeless than tourists. Metered parking surrounds the park.
Through Airbnb, we stayed at The Palmer in downtown at 1415 3rd Avenue South. The units are very new, and the complex contains nice amenities, including a large gym, a pool and indoor parking.
We picked Birmingham for lodging primarily due to the nonstop flights from Washington National Airport. The Birmingham International airport is small and easy to navigate.
We ate several meals in the unit after shopping at the nearby Publix supermarket on 20th Street, less than one mile from The Palmer. In the suburb of Vestavia Hills about 5 miles outside of downtown at 708 Montgomery Highway, the Vestavia Hills Center contains a wide variety of upscale national and regional restaurants.
Right by Railroad Park, the Red Cat Café (1701 1st Avenue South) offers indoor and outdoor seating. In addition to the vegan food options which we enjoyed, the café has an extensive menu of coffee and tea offerings, some of which are named after cat breeds.
Frank Lloyd Wright Rosenbaum House (601 Riverview Drive):
Located in Florence, the Rosenbaum House is open for tours daily except Mondays without an advance reservation. Jeff provided us with an exceptional 45-minute tour of the interior rooms. This is one of Wright’s Usonian style houses. The Rosenbaum family took up residence in 1940, spending about $14,000 for the home’s first phase. The Rosenbaum house is a larger version of Wright’s Pope-Leighey near our home in Alexandria, Virginia.
In an L-shape, the house is built of cypress wood and brick, featuring many windows which intentionally blur the distinction between indoor and outdoor living. Wright designed an extension in 1948, to increase the living space with a second L-shape. The Rosembaums remained the sole owners until 1999, when the house was donated to the city of Florence, where it was opened to the public as a museum. Many of the original furnishings remain in the house. The Rosenbaum House is the only Wright house in the Southeastern United States.
Muscle Shoals Sound Studio (3614 Jackson Highway):
The recording studio is in Sheffield, just outside Muscle Shoals, by the Tennessee River.. Tours take place daily except for Sunday and Monday. Taylor led an information packed 45-minute tour, citing personal experiences that he had with well-known musicians at the studio.
Opened in 1969 by the four Swampers (also known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section), this Studio became unique because it was owned and operated by session musicians. The Swampers played on over 200 albums at the studio, producing more than 75 gold and platinum records and many Grammy winners for a wide variety of hall of fame musicians.
The studio was reopened as an active recording studio in 2015 and contains many of the original pieces of equipment used by rock and roll greats (The Rolling Stones, Cher, Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, etc). We learned about the studio through an excellent documentary called Muscle Shoals which also features the nearby FAME Studios. This studio has become of one of the state’s top attractions!
Ivy Green Helen Keller Birthplace (310 North Cummons Street West):
In Tuscumbia, we visited Ivy Green. The modest admission fee includes a short tour. Our guide Susan was very helpful. The house is located on a 640-acre tract. Ivy Green was built in 1820 by Helen’s grandparents.
The main house is of Virginia cottage construction, with four large rooms on the first floor bisected by a wide hall. The simple white clapboard home is designed in typical Southern architecture. Upstairs are three rooms connected by a hall. Susan explained that many of the furnishings and furniture are originals. There is also a cottage situated just outside of the main house. Between the main house and the cottage is the famous well pump where Helen Keller learned her first word, water. The house contains hundreds of mementos of Helen’s life.
The well-manicured grounds are also beautiful, including a kitchen building, an icehouse, and gardens. We particularly enjoyed the Lion’s international memorial garden which contains gifs to Helen from many different countries. The estate is nestled under a ceiling canopy of English boxwood trees over 150 years old.
Fern and I found that Alabama has loads of things to do over a three-day period. We learned more about where civil rights history happened and enjoyed a nice array of other attractions, as well. During May, the weather was warm but not uncomfortable. Overall, the Alabama portion of our trip exceeded our expectations. We then headed on to Mississippi to continue the trip.