Family Travel: Alabama Civil-Rights History Road Trip

Along the Alabama Civil Rights Museum Trail, the author and his family explore our country's complicated past.

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On the Road to Civil Rights

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute; Photograph by Cary Norton

On the Road to Civil Rights

I wonder: Is it a sign of success or failure when your kids describe their vacation as "intense"?

My sons -- Henry, age 13, and Charley, 11 -- devour history. So last year, when my wife, Michaela, and I realized a trip to visit their grandparents in Florida would put us a day's drive from the sites of some of the most significant events in our nation's past, we planned a detour.

None of us had ever seen the real South (sorry, Tampa, but you're something else), and we were curious to try not only biscuits and gravy but also a new travel trend: civil rights tourism. Dozens of states, from Massachusetts to Mississippi, now provide maps, markers, and trails to the scenes of African American struggles and triumphs. You can get civil rights trading cards at National Park Service sites, civil rights apps, and at least two fascinating guidebooks (see slide 4).

Few states compare with Alabama, however, in the quality, quantity, and importance of civil rights sites. It was in Montgomery, the state capital, that Rosa Parks refused to leave her seat, instigating a bus boycott that drew a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. into the national limelight. Marchers for voting rights were beaten with clubs as they crossed a bridge in Selma. And Dr. King wrote one of the most eloquent missives in the English language in a Birmingham jail cell.

On our long day's drive from Florida, we acquainted ourselves with "sweet" and "unsweet" tea and practiced adding "sir" and "ma'am" to the ends of our sentences. When we finally rolled into Montgomery, we found that, to its credit, this sprawling modern city has not shied away from acknowledging some of the most unsavory aspects of its past. Plaques in the historic downtown identify sites where slaves were inspected and auctioned and where they loaded cotton onto riverboats.

Originally published in the February 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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On the Road to Civil Rights

A sculpture depicting Rosa Parks; Photograph by Cary Norton

On the Road to Civil Rights

We stood outside the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. organized the bus boycott, and listened to its current pastor preach about love. We examined the divot a bomb carved into the concrete porch of the parsonage that was once the home of Dr. King, and outside the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station, we found a wall of displays where Freedom Riders were beaten with bats by a mob ( And we visited what may be our favorite museum of all time.

At the Troy University Rosa Parks Library and Museum, we were amazed by the story it shared -- and how well it told it. We started inside a "time travel" bus, where audio and video took us through the history of U.S. slavery and Jim Crow, up to December 1955, when the boycott began. Then we stood in front of a Montgomery city bus from that time and watched a re-creation of the events; we felt like spectators on the street. We heard the argument between the driver and Parks and saw her arrested. When we wanted to know more, a friendly and knowledgeable guide directed us to wall displays with explanations and original documents (

"This is cool," Henry said afterward, as we stood outside and looked at the spot where Parks helped spark a revolution. "I've talked and read about these things, but it's really thought-provoking to be where it all happened."

Thanks to our excellent guidebook (A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement, by Jim Carrier), we knew that down the road in Lowndes County in 1965, 11 years after a Supreme Court decision desegregated public schools, not a single African American was registered to vote. When they tried to register, they were intimidated and given literacy tests including impossible questions, such as "How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?" After a young man was shot during a protest, supporters decided to march all the way to Montgomery, 54 miles away. As they crossed Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge -- named for a former head of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan -- they were gassed, beaten, and chased by state and local lawmen back to the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church.

Originally published in the February 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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On the Road to Civil Rights

In Kelly Ingram Park, statues bring the terror of police dogs to life; Photograph by Cary Norton

On the Road to Civil Rights

After federal intervention, they did march to Montgomery, and you can see the markers that the National Park Service has placed at the various sites where the marchers camped. We visited the bridge in Selma and two interpretive centers, which, through a movie, displays, and interviews with the participants, explain the events that ultimately provoked passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As we learned there, President Johnson compared the events in Selma to the Battles of Lexington and Concord: vital moments in "man's unending search for freedom" (

As we finished touring the second interpretive center, I noticed Charley looking unusually serious. "That was really good," he said. I asked him, "When you're old enough, are you going to vote?" "Yeah!" he said.

Both Charley and Henry found the most "intense" part of our trip, however, to be in Birmingham. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute provided the most comprehensive overview of the struggle to end racism in America, from displays of separate-and-not-equal schoolrooms to city zoning maps that specified the neighborhoods where nonwhites had to live.

The institute stands across from Kelly Ingram Park and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church; thousands of young people once gathered there to march against segregation. When local police turned German shepherds and fire hoses on them, it ended up on the nightly news and horrified the nation. Years later, learning about it horrifies my boys. The park now contains sculptures memorializing the four girls who were killed when the Sixteenth Street church was bombed, as well as the teenage marchers, the water cannons, and those police dogs (

At the park, Henry walked between metal figures of gnashing canines and cringed. "I find even our friends' dogs a little scary sometimes," he said, his voice rising in pitch. "But these were dogs whose job it was to attack you! How could anybody think that was a good idea?"

An excellent question. As history buffs, my boys already knew that nearly every government and society around the globe has been guilty of abusing some group of "others," from the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome to the slaughter of Tutsi in Rwanda. I told them my grandfather, otherwise a very loving man, was also a racist. Meanness and ignorance can exist in all of us. The question is: What do you do about it?

Both boys thought about it. Henry said he was inspired by the Birmingham teenagers and the bravery it must have taken to keep marching through all that abuse. "It shows that people can change things," he said. "Even young people."

Charley nodded and described standing up for a boy who was being bullied on his bus. We had a good, long discussion about the subject, which struck me as a more valuable activity than lying on a beach.

Our family's conclusion? Yes, intense vacations can be successful ones, too.

Originally published in the February 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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If You Go

In Kelly Ingram Park, statues honor four young girls slain in a church bombing; Photograph by Cary Norton

If You Go

You can find more information on the Alabama Civil Rights Museum Trail, including an interactive map and downloadable brochure, at The National Park Service offers a guide to civil rights sites in 20 states and the District of Columbia at

Recommended Reading:

  • On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail, by Charles E. Cobb Jr. ($18.95, Algonquin Books)
  • A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement, by Jim Carrier ($29.95, Mariner Books)

Nathaniel Reade and his family live in western Massachusetts, where they are at work on the third book in their Pencil Bandits series.

Originally published in the February 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.