Tourism is a big business in the capital city. Nearly three million visitors make their way to Montgomery each year, and it’s estimated those tourists spend about $1.5 million per day on hotel stays, food, fuel, shopping and admission for local attractions. While it’s hard for tourism leaders to track exactly what brought those visitors to Montgomery, they can say for certain that the city’s civil rights history has put it on the world’s radar for sightseeing appeal.
“You have to acknowledge that Montgomery’s place on the Civil Rights Trail has made it a destination for travelers who want to experience the places and the sites where foot soldiers changed the world,” said Dawn Hathcock, Vice President of Destination MGM and Brand Development for the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce. “We know that is a huge reason why people are coming here.”
Alabama, and Montgomery in particular, have claim to an important piece of the Civil Rights Trail. Alabama has more sites on the trail than any other state, and Montgomery has more sites than any other city on the trail. In total, there are 10 sites in Montgomery listed on the trail: the City of St. Jude; the Civil Rights Memorial Center at the Southern Poverty Law Center; Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church; the Dexter Parsonage; First Baptist Church on Ripley Street; the Freedom Riders Museum; the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum; the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture on the campus of Alabama State University; and the Rosa Parks Library, Museum and Children’s Wing.
The newest sites, EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice and its separate Legacy Museum, have landed Montgomery in the international spotlight, thanks to the media attention they garnered. “In the year and a half since EJI opened, 650,000 people visited it. Many of those people who came to see and learn about EJI’s mission were new, first-time visitors who had not been to Montgomery,” Hathcock said.
Its opening has also led more people to discover the city’s other historic sites and attractions, including the site where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. “We have definitely seen an increase in attendance since our neighbors have come along – EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum. We are located geographically right between the two sites, so many of their visitors come here and enjoy this experience too,” said Dr. Felicia Bell, Director of the Rosa Parks Museum.
That museum, located at the site where Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, is on the campus of Troy Montgomery, which owns and operates it. It serves as a living memorial to Parks, with a permanent exhibition as well as year-round programming and temporary art exhibitions focused on topics that elevate the legacy of Parks in the place where it all began. “It is important for visitors to come to Montgomery – to see where so many sacrificed so much for 382 days of not riding those buses. This place is significant because it allowed foot soldiers to gain a little more toward equality and human dignity. It was the catalyst for it all,” Bell said.
“When people come here, they are reminded that everyday people – including each one of us – have the power to bring about change by standing up and speaking out,” added Tafeni English, Director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary.
While civil rights tourism is the heart of the city’s economic engine, Montgomery’s history is intertwined in every initiative – including its strides in place-making, technology and entrepreneurism. “Our goal is to make sure every business owner, employee and organization understands their role in our story. It’s up to us to be ambassadors for our city’s history and to make sure the true stories that changed the world continue to bring people here to experience them firsthand,” said Hathcock.
UPCOMING CIVIL RIGHTS EVENTS
SELMA BRIDGE CROSSING JUBILEE
February 27-March 1
This year marks the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when marchers were attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The day is honored and celebrated at the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee in Selma. It is the largest annual civil rights commemoration in the world. selma50.com
SELMA TO MONTGOMERY RELAY
Part of the Civil Rights Race Series with events all over the South, this race takes runners, walkers and cyclers along the same 54-mile route traveled on the famous Selma-to-Montgomery march. selmatomontgomeryrelay.com
Learn more about other sites on the Civil Rights Trail at civilrightstrail.com, and visit these nearby spots.
- 16th Street Baptist Church: The church was the site of the 1963 bombing that killed four young black girls.
- Birmingham Civil Rights Institute: This modern museum features a rendition of a segregated city in the 1950s, a replica of a Freedom Riders bus and even the actual door to the jail cell that held Dr. King.
- Brown Chapel AME Church: The first AME church in Alabama, Brown Chapel was the site of preparations for the march to Montgomery.
- Lowndes Interpretive Center: This museum is dedicated to those who peacefully marched from Selma to Montgomery to gain the right to vote.
- Edmund Pettus Bridge: Now a National Historic Landmark, the bridge was the site of the brutal Bloody Sunday beatings of civil rights activists during the first march for voting rights.