Exploring black history in Montgomery, Alabama

By Graham McKenzie

Montgomery, Alabama is the state capital and there are many reasons to visit.

It has a little bit of everything you could want on vacation, including history, art, activities, and a rapidly evolving food scene.

Let’s take the art scene for starters. Within the city limits is the Museum of Fine Arts, which has a simply wonderful collection of modern American works combined with seasonal exhibitions by famous foreign artists. For me, the most outstanding feature was the amount of work by local black artists and their perspective on the past, present and future.

A short drive from the MMFA (as it’s known locally) is Shakespeare’s Festival. In my ignorance, I expected an open-air mix of people dressed up as Iago, Marc Anthony, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet. Not correct! What I witnessed was a truly magnificent theater set up in one building with a main hall and several smaller ones.

Despite the name, these are not exclusively the work of William S. I was privileged to hear and see some of the preparations for her Christmas special, It’s a Wonderful Life, which was to be broadcast over the World Wide Web. Sound effects are produced locally and live, which turned out to be quite amusing when I discovered what the sound of George Bailey jumping in the water to save his angel would make. A rather old toilet plunger!

Dining and quality service is a growing part of the Montgomery scene. Cuisines from across the nation and even from around the world are readily available. I personally enjoyed an Italian meal that mom would have been proud of. Then you can celebrate Montgomery’s most famous musical son in Hank Williams. In his museum, with an extensive collection of clothes, cars and pictures, you can learn everything about his life and his untimely death at the age of only 29 on January 1, 1953. The man is so popular in Alabama that Septenber21 is called ‘Hank Williams Tag’.

If activity is your thing then the area offers plenty of opportunities for walks, strolls and hikes. Along with larger parks and hiking trails, the Alabama River walk is a treat where you can stop and spend many happy hours just watching the world and the river go by. Kayaking and fishing are also available.

However, the real reason you would want to visit Montgomery is for the extensive study and coverage it provides African American History. It covers the transatlantic slave trade in the mid-19th centuryth Century, through the civil rights movement to the modern day struggles of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Many people will have heard of Rosa Parks speaking out against bus segregation within the city. Their story is told in detail in a dedicated museum, as is the story of the Liberty Riders, who adopted a similar attitude on long-distance buses in the early ’60s that ended in bloody violence at the Montgomery bus station. You can tour the church and the house where Martin Luther King worked and lived. Head to Tuskegee Airfield, where a squadron of black pilots trained and fought in Europe during World War II, only to find they were unwanted when they returned.

The city is not far away Selma where in 1965 a group of young African Americans decided to march the 54 miles to the capital to protest the restrictions put in place on voter registration if you were black. I had the privilege of interviewing one of the “foot soldiers” of that day, forever known in American history as Bloody Sunday.

Perhaps my most sobering experience was my visit to the Equal Justice Initiative and its museum. The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration is set on a Montgomery site where black people were forced to work in bondage. Located just blocks from one of the most prominent slave auction rooms in America, the Legacy Museum is steps from the train station where tens of thousands of blacks were traded in the 19th century.

From the moment you step inside you are aware of the struggles and injustices that are being foisted on people because of their skin colour, but they are also pushing for struggles around the world. It’s a place I recommend to everyone. For knowledge-seeking tourists who want a fuller understanding of African-American history, a visit to Montgomery is essential.

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