Given Montgomery’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, there are a lot of historic sites throughout the city. My first visit was motivated by the grand opening of the Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. While in the city on that visit I had a chance to see the waterfront, railroad station, a local park, and other locations that were prominently involved with the slave trade.
I didn’t have enough time to see all of the museums and historical sites but told my mom about the experience. We decided to make another trip so she could see the museums and I could visit the sites that I missed on my first trip.
Many of the Montgomery Civil Rights Sites are located within walking distance of each other. But, if you’re short on time, it would be more efficient to get around by car. Some of the sites don’t have dedicated parking lots but there’s ample street parking and the meters are relatively inexpensive. I think a two or three day weekend is more than enough time to see everything.
Troy University Rosa Parks Museum
The first thing to note about the Rosa Parks Museum is that it’s located at right about the spot where Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955. A placard in the entrance hall explains that prior to the museum, Troy University owned two buildings that were located on this spot which they planned to demolish to build a parking lot. Located at the curb outside the building is a historical marker which denotes the bus stop at which Parks was arrested. There was no monument built at the time but people still visited for the experience of standing on the spot. Seeing an opportunity to preserve this piece of history (and make a bit of money in the process), Troy University built a museum to honor Rosa Parks.
I consider the museum’s name to be a bit of a misnomer or at least it needs a subtitle. It certainly features Rosa Parks but is more accurately about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I would have expected a Rosa Parks Museum to tell her life story in detail following her arrest on through the end of her life. Instead, once the boycott gets into gear, much of the focus shifts to other participants. In addition, the Children’s Wing goes into detail about the broader history of discrimination against Black people. This isn’t a bad thing but rather something to keep in mind so you can adjust your expectations accordingly.
The Rosa Parks Museum is split into two sections, a general gallery and the children’s wing. There are timed entries for both sides of the museum and I recommend getting the combined ticket which allows you to visit both galleries.
The Main Gallery
Segregation in Montgomery
The first section of the exhibit contains video screens where you watch a short movie. The film details the unjust and degrading experiences that Black people had to endure in general, and particularly when riding the buses in Montgomery. The way this is presented is actually quite interesting because there’s one audio track playing but three different televisions, each one showing a different set of visuals.
There’s a short bio of Rosa Parks, which is a bit different than the norm. Usually when Rosa Parks is discussed her life seemingly begins with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. You learn very little about her life prior to this event. In addition, she’s always portrayed as an older lady at the time Rosa Parks was only 42 years old.
It was a nice experience to see photos of Parks in her youth and as a young adult. And to learn about her experience at the age of 42 where she attended a desegregation workshop. For the first time in her life she experienced White people preparing the food she ate and treating her in a respectful manner. Hearing about how much she dreaded going back to Montgomery, where as a seamstress, she would be forced to smile at rude customers and ride segregated buses. But knowing through hindsight what this experience would mean to her life and the lives of so many others.
Rosa Parks & The Bus Incident
At this point the video ended we were ushered into the second section of the exhibit. You stand in a somewhat darkened room and watch a reenactment of the incident on the bus. An interesting tidbit that I learned here was that the bus driver who demanded that Parks give up her seat and called the cops had put Parks off a bus 12 years earlier. I don’t remember if this info was shared as an aside from the narrator or in the voice of Rosa Parks. Meaning it’s possible that Parks remembered this particular driver and their prior run in or this might have been figured out later on.
In the transition from the bus incident part of the exhibit to the boycott we passed through something along the lines of a church service. A sermon and hymn from the actual launch of the bus boycott was played.
Apparently Parks was told to “make it light on yourself.” Meaning to give up the seat and avoid a confrontation. But instead she decided to stay put, as in her words, “I have been pushed as far as I could be pushed.” I appreciated the content in this area of the exhibit but I generally dislike reenactments and didn’t particularly care for this one.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
I appreciated that the exhibit equally credits the less well-known civil rights activists who also contributed to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In particular it gives just due to the women aside from Rosa Parks who launched and helped to manage the boycott. It clarifies that before Rosa Parks was arrested, a teenage Claudette Colvin had also refused to give up her seat on a bus.
I love strategy and intrigue so this section of the exhibit which focused on the various strategies behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott was also one of my favorites. Quite often in the telling of the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott it’s very simplified and would lead people to believe that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came up with the idea of and personally led the boycott. In actuality, Edgar Nixon helped to get Parks bailed out of jail and began working on the positioning of her court case. And on the very night of the arrest, Jo Ann Robinson swung into action and had the vision to print 52,500 flyers which were distributed to Black people throughout Montgomery announcing the boycott.
The bus boycott was originally intended to last for one day, the Monday following the arrest of Parks. But, an astonishing 96% of Black people stayed off the buses that Monday which led to an extension of the boycott. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was created to organize and manage the boycott and still exists to this day. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who at the time was the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was selected to lead the MIA. This role and the success of the boycott were arguably factors which helped to set Dr. King on the path to becoming a civil rights icon. At this point in the exhibit the focus shifted to Dr. King and the wider Montgomery Bus Boycott which results in losing track of Rosa Parks for a while.
Initially the city and bus company were unwilling to negotiate with the MIA and attempted to frustrate their efforts by constantly redirecting the organization to the other entity. Black people made up about 75% of riders which resulted in losses of about $3,000 per day. The loss of revenue affected bus company employees and others, leading to an escalation in hostility and violence towards the boycotters.
Various factions of White Montgomery became involved with some threatening violence and others going so far as to bomb Dr. King’s home. Fortunately, Coretta Scott King, their first child, and a family friend were able to escape unharmed. Ironically, an organization referring to itself as the Men of Montgomery created ads and media articles that accused the MIA and boycotters of being violent radicals.
There were numerous calls for negotiations and a few half-hearted attempts but little actual effort on the part of the city or bus company to come to terms. After negotiations fell apart, the city began to push for mass arrests of the Civil Rights activists as well as the drivers who helped provide alternative transportation. Sensing a ploy to remove activists and weaken the movement, the MIA and its supporters gathered at the police station and demanded to be arrested en masse rather than as individuals.
It was pretty cool that before turning themselves in, the MIA and its supporters gathered to have a photo taken in their Sunday’s best and military uniforms. In one move, they neutralized the propaganda that attempted to portray them as crazy radicals while also establishing a record of their physical appearance and condition before their arrests.
With donations, local churches were able to purchase a fleet of vehicles that could be used to transport boycotters. The city implemented a “Get Tough Policy” through which insurance companies would find petty reasons to cancel policies and police officers would ticket drivers for minor and trumped-up infractions.
After 381 days, the boycott ended with the successful integration of Montgomery’s buses. Part of the victory came from federal rulings that formally outlawed this form of segregation. But an even larger part of the victory for the Black people of Montgomery was knowing that they’d made a difference by taking economic action and financially stifling the bus system that had for so long devalued and discriminated against them.
I enjoyed the content but the experience of how and when to enter the exhibits could be improved. The museum was pretty strict about not allowing guests to enter the exhibit until the scheduled start time. Everyone had to sit and wait in a gallery area near the entrance until the appointed time. But then the start time came and went and nobody told us that we could enter the exhibit until we inquired about why it was starting late.
It’s not a requirement but I went through the general gallery with a tour guide. At the time that I entered there was a large group visiting the museum and they were being escorted by the tour guide. I think the guide assumed we were all together and just moved everyone through. I didn’t realize that the guide was not required until afterwards and would have preferred to go through at my own pace. Having a tour guide wasn’t a bad experience but I ended up having the story told to me rather than being able to take the time to view the photos and read the placards on my own. In addition, the museum isn’t huge so it was difficult to see items on the walls in the midst of such a large group.
The Children’s Wing
The Children’s Wing of the Rosa Parks Museum is housed on the same block but you have to exit the main gallery and walk a few feet to the entrance. We were stopped by some other visitors in the main exhibit and were delayed getting to the Children’s Wing so we entered a few minutes after the video began.
You get into a “time machine bus” that takes you back in history beginning in the 1800s. A video shows short dramatisations of moments in Black history with particular focus on how court cases and policy decisions led up to and helped shape Jim Crow laws. At the point that I walked in, the Dred Scott decision was being discussed. The film then touched on Harriet Tubman and Henry “Box” Brown who escaped to freedom in a box. I was a bit surprised that the video was fairly honest regarding the Union’s goal of preserving the United States and the limitations of the Emancipation Proclamation.
This part of the museum is actually quite short but I think it would be great for kids. I think children of a certain age could probably handle both wings of the museum but it might be best to start here. The Time Machine bus probably won’t be very exciting or interesting for adults but it has lights, moves, and there’s a lot of imaginative stuff taking place that might capture a child’s attention.
It’s also not widely publicized but upstairs above the Children’s Wing is an adult version of the exhibit featuring much of the same content but in the form of your standard museum with wall photos and placards.
First Baptist Church
Founded in 1867, the First Baptist Church was organized and built by it’s Black congregants. Dr. Ralph Abernathy was pastor of the church from 1952 to 1961. During that time the building was used for Montgomery Bus Boycott mass meetings and was the location at which Rep. John Lewis met Dr. Abernathy and Dr. King for the first time.
In 1961, First Baptist also functioned as a safe haven for Freedom Riders who fled an attack at the local Greyhound Bus Station. With Freedom Riders, activists, and congregants trapped inside, the church was surrounded by a mob of several thousand White citizens. The mob was finally dispersed when the city was placed under a form of martial law. But, the people trapped inside remained under guard for several hours until the terms of their release were worked out.1
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church
The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was founded in 1877 after a contingent of the First Baptist Church became dissatisfied and left to form their own congregation. The church participated in establishing Alabama State University (formerly Alabama Colored Peoples University).
Vernon Johns and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. later became pastors with Johns leading the church from 1947 to 1952 and King from 1954 to 1960. Johns began the push for congregants to become involved with the burgeoning civil rights movement and to fight against the racism of Montgomery’s segregation laws. An interesting tidbit is that Johns was forced out for being too radical and Dr. King was selected as a safer choice who wouldn’t rock the boat.2
Dexter Parsonage Museum
The parsonage was home to the pastors of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and was registered as a National Historic Place in 1982. It was restored to the state it was in during the time Dr. King lived in the home with his family. The rooms of the home are decorated with period pieces much of which belonged to the King family. I visited and took a look around the outside but I wasn’t very interested in seeing furniture. Though I might have ventured inside if I knew in advance that there were rare and personal photos on display.3
Alabama State Capitol
In 1965, the Selma to Montgomery March ended at the steps to the Alabama State Capitol. A delegation attempted to present a petition to obtain voting rights, ensure equal protection under the law, and end police brutality. The petitioners were denied entry and with approximately 25,000 people in attendance, Dr. King gave a speech to further rally and inspire the protestors.4
Freedom Rides Museum
The Freedom Riders were activists, consisting primarily of college students, but entirely of youths under the age of 22.5 The group had been organized by CORE to protest the segregation of interstate bus travel. On the morning of May 20, 1961, the Freedom Riders arrived at the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station and were savagely attacked by a White mob.6 The museum displays photos and placards about the Freedom Riders as well as various other participants on both sides of the event.
Civil Rights Memorial Center
In 1989, a memorial was erected outside of what was then the offices of the Southern Poverty Law Center. It commemorates the 41 activists who lost their lives during the Civil Rights Movement.7 The memorial consists of a cone shaped fountain that was carved from granite and designed by Maya Lin. The names are inscribed on the flat surface of the cone with water running over them and down the sides to the cone’s point. Unfortunately, this was my last stop in the city and I didn’t have enough time for the museum.
- “History.” n.d. First Baptist Church Montgomery – History. Accessed August 22, 2019. https://www.firstbaptistchurchmontgomery.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=96:brief-history-2&catid=20&Itemid=132.↩
- “Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.” n.d. Encyclopedia of Alabama. Accessed August 22, 2019. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1849.↩
- “Parsonage Museum Tour.” n.d. Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church Montgomery Alabama. Accessed August 22, 2019. https://www.dexterkingmemorial.org/tours/parsonage-museum.↩
- Reed, Roy. 1965. “25,000 Go to Alabama’s Capitol; Wallace Rebuffs Petitioners; White Rights Worker Is Slain.” The New York Times. The New York Times. March 25, 1965. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0325.html.↩
- Freedom Rides Museum. Accessed August 22, 2019. https://ahc.alabama.gov/properties/freedomrides/freedomrides.aspx.↩
- “Freedom Rides Museum.” 2019. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. August 1, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_Rides_Museum.↩
- “Civil Rights Martyrs.” n.d. Southern Poverty Law Center. Accessed August 22, 2019. https://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/civil-rights-memorial/civil-rights-martyrs.↩
- Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park
- National Memorial for Peace and Justice
- The Legacy Museum
- Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
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