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Montgomery, Alabama: Courageous, Rebellious, and Visionary

Court Square, Montgomery, Alabama
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Court Square, Montgomery, Alabama

We were deep in the heart of Dixie, in the land where cotton was king. It was also the heart of the struggles for freedom and equality. This city was the Cradle of the Confederacy and Birthplace of both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Here in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, no matter which way we headed from our downtown hotel, we were deeply immersed in history.

Commerce Street, Montgomery, Alabama
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Commerce Street, Montgomery, Alabama

Commerce Street, alongside the Renaissance Hotel, was once the center of downtown manufacturing. The street’s historic buildings have been restored, and one houses the Hank Williams Museum. With costumes, custom made suits, musical instruments, and even the baby blue 1952 Cadillac in which he took his final ride, it is the most complete showcase of the country singer’s life. It is owned and enthusiastically operated by Beth Petty, who is quick to note that “No other artist in the field of music has ever matched what Hank Williams did in that length of time.” Nearby are Williams’ favorite eateries–Chris’ Hot Dogs (where Elvis also had a hot dog), and The Elite (pronounced E’-light) Café, now called Nobles.

Murphy House, built for cotton merchant John Murphy, now Montgomery Water Works
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Murphy House, built for cotton merchant John Murphy, now Montgomery Water Works

Across from the hotel is the formerly bustling Union Station, now housing the Visitor Center. Behind it, antebellum cotton wagons unloaded their cargo on the Alabama River by the dock where the riverboat Harriot II now awaits passengers for scenic cruises. The new Riverwalk, part of the city’s Riverfront Entertainment District, leads to an amphitheater with splash pad and Biscuits stadium, home to the AA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Cross the road back toward the hotel for The Alley, a trendy New Orleans French Quarter-style restaurant district—all part of ongoing plans for the lively riverfront area. Sample barbeque at Dreamland, Italian food at SaZa, and join the evening crowd for live music and the ice bar at the popular AlleyBar.

Court Square, Montgomery, Alabama
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Court Square, Montgomery, Alabama

Continuing on, Court Square (which is not square and no longer has a court house) is dominated by the landmark fountain that stands at the site of Civil War-era slave auctions. The telegram that led to first shots of the War of Northern Aggression, (known to Yankees as The Civil War) was sent from a hidden telegraph office on second floor of the Square’s Winter Building.

Rosa Parks waited at a nearby bus stop for the historic ride in 1955 that led to her arrest for refusing to give up her seat. The Rosa Parks Library and Museum, part of Troy University, is just down Montgomery Street, at the site old Empire Theater and this pivotal event. The museum includes many historic artifacts and an emotional reenactment of the 1955 incident that triggered the Bus Boycott and led to a Supreme Court decision banning bus segregation

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

State Capitol, Montgomery, Alabama
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State Capitol, Montgomery, Alabama

Dexter Avenue—one of most historic short streets in US—runs uphill from Court Square to the State Capitol where in 1861 Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as President of the Confederate States of America.

Dexter Avenue Church, Montgomery, Alabama
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Dexter Avenue Church, Montgomery, Alabama

A little over a century later (1965) the Selma-to- Montgomery march for voting rights for all citizens ended here, highlighted by the “How Long, Not Long” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Midway up the hill, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from his first and only pulpit at the Dexter Avenue Memorial Baptist Church, which also served as headquarters of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

A century or so ago, Montgomery had a busy new railroad station and was the first city in the Western Hemisphere with an electric streetcar system, the Lightning Route. A quarter gets you a ride on the today’s Lightning Route Trolley. It is a great way to get out of the mid-day Alabama sun and to the attractions that are uphill or a little farther out. For seniors it’s just a dime! Weekdays, two alternating narrated routes stop at landmarks and historical sites along the way. It starts at the historic Union Station, just outside the Visitor Center, or catch it at any stop. We opted for day passes–just a dollar–50 cents for seniors—and rode both loops first for an overview and bargain-priced city tour.

A few other stops along the trolley route that shouldn’t be missed:

Capitol dome, Montgomery, Alabama
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Capitol dome, Montgomery, Alabama

Be sure to see the interior of the historic Capitol. Of note are the spiral staircase and rotunda murals depicting Alabama history and the historic House, Senate, and Supreme Court rooms.

The First White House of the Confederacy, Montgomery, Alabama
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The First White House of the Confederacy, Montgomery, Alabama

Across the street, The First White House of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis’ Civil War home while Montgomery was Capital of the Confederate States of America has been preserved with period furnishings, war memorabilia, and some of his personal items. It was relocated from the the Renaissance Hotel area to this spot across from the Capitol and adjacent to the Archives.

The story of Alabama’s people is revealed through the Native American, pioneer, military, and political documents and artifacts at the beautiful marble Alabama Department of Archives and History, Alabama’s official state history museum. It’s the oldest state-funded archives in the nation and a genealogical research facility, all housed in an impressive marble building completed in 1940.

Dexter Parsonage Museum, Montgomery, Alabama
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Dexter Parsonage Museum, Montgomery, Alabama

The Dexter Parsonage Museum, on Centennial Hill, is where Martin Luther King, dynamic leader of the nonviolent approach, calmed the angry crowd after the porch of his home was firebombed. It was in this kitchen he had the epiphany that gave him the strength to continue to stand up for justice and righteousness.

Civil Rights Memorial, Montgomery, Alabama
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Civil Rights Memorial, Montgomery, Alabama

Water flows gently over the names of martyrs of the modern Civil Rights Movement inscribed a circular black granite table at the Civil Rights Memorial “This is not a monument to suffering; it is a memorial to hope,” said its designer, Maya Lin, also the architect of Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, D.C. You can enter your name in the Wall of Tolerance, a permanent interactive display in the Civil Rights Memorial Center, part of the continuing movement for social justice

2 story dogtrot house, Old Alabama Town, Montgomery, Alabama
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2 story dogtrot house, Old Alabama Town, Montgomery, Alabama

Old Alabama Town, the blocks of restored authentic structures that showcase Alabama life in 19th and early 20th centuries. Step back in time in buildings like a one-room schoolhouse, log cabins, and a cotton gin. The dogtrot house, designed with an open passageway running between two log cabins connected by common roof, is unique in having a second story.

Hungry? The Farmer’s Market Café, with Southern Cookin’ that includes fried green tomatoes every day, and the Tucker Pecan Store, with the tastiest of Southern treats, are both on N. McDonough Street, just a block from Old Alabama Town.

Check the schedule and catch a Broadway-style show, music concert, other cultural activity at the 1800 seat Montgomery Performing Arts Center, conveniently connected to the Renaissance Hotel. Performers have included BB King, Loretta Lynn, and Smoky Robinson.

Outside the City

The Wright Brothers opened the nation’s first civilian flying school here in 1910. Today it is home to Maxwell Air Force Base and Hyundai’s first assembly and manufacturing plant in North America. The free hour-long tram tour reveals the latest in automotive technology. 280 robots and their Alabamian associates are busy at work stamping, painting, and assembling in the 2 million square foot facility, where it takes 16 ½ hours from rolling out to rolling off. Up to 300,000 cars are produced here each year.

If Shakespeare is in town, head outside the city for the Blount Cultural Park -— 350 acres of English-style countryside. It is home to one of the top 10 and one of the largest Shakespeare Theaters in the world. Fourteen productions are produced each year, including three by the Bard. The ever-popular Alabama Shakespeare Festival attracts over 300,000 visitors from around the world. Book a backstage tour to see the costumes and props. Even if you can’t catch a performance, head out to enjoy the grounds.

The Shakespeare Garden features flowers and plants from Shakespeare’s plays.
The park is also home to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, with a permanent collection of 19th and 20th century American paintings and sculptures. Old Master Prints, decorative and Southern regional art. It also houses ARTWORKS, Alabama’s first interactive fine arts gallery for children.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was stationed here in World War I when he met Zelda, daughter of a prominent judge. Literary fans will want to visit the home they shared from 1931-1932 in the Cloverdale section of the city, preserved as a museum.

For more family friendly entertainment, travel from South American jungles to Asian hilltops. You can visit five continents as you stroll along the shaded walkways of the Montgomery Zoo. You’ll see over 600 animals in their natural habitats and can learn more about wildlife conservation at the Mann Museum.

Golf Magazine and the Zagat Survey named the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail one of top public courses in America. It’s just ten minutes from downtown.

I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We had visited the Capital City that transformed the American South and were inspired by the struggles Alabama has met and overcome. We had walked the pathways of history and seen how the city has emerged revitalized. It was a chance to learn from the past and dream the visions of tomorrow — all here in Montgomery.

Additional quotes:

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. 
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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