Montgomery: A Place Where History Runs Deep
by Marilyn Jones Stamps
History is woven into the very soul of Montgomery. It spirals down grand staircases, like the one inside the 1847 State Capitol building. It descends from lofty places, such as Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where a humble preacher rose to prominence as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. And it bubbles up from streets such as historic Dexter Avenue that bustled with merchants in the 1800s, served as an auction block for slaves until the end of the Civil War and was later pounded by the foot soldiers during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. Captured between the brick and mortar of historic church houses and notable dwellings and inside museum after museum in downtown Montgomery, you'll hear epic stories of a past that is unparalleled by that of any other city in America.
Park and Walk or Ride the Trolley To Explore Montgomery's History
Begin your tour at the Montgomery Area Visitor Center (300 Water St.; 334-262-0013) at Union Station. Park your car and go inside for brochures and information on what to see and do in the city. Be sure to purchase a piece of history or a souvenir at The Stop at Union Station gift shop (300 Water St.; 334-261-1121). You can walk to many of the downtown attractions and museums, but to get to others, you'll want to drive. If you choose to walk or take the trolley, be careful to look for a parking space to leave your car where you won't be ticketed. There are metered parking spaces in and around the train shed and The Alley, Montgomery's thriving downtown entertainment district.
Your best bet for parking would be one of the city’s free parking decks. One of them is located about a block to the left of Union Station. There are also other decks where you can park for a small fee or you can look for a lot where you can pay for extended day parking. Signage is visible for designated public parking.
See Sites That Showcase the Birth of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement in America
One of the fascinations of downtown Montgomery is the fact that there are so many museums and attractions dedicated to telling the story of the city's role in the Civil War of the 1860s and the Civil Rights Movement that occurred nearly a century later. With Jefferson Davis as its leader, Montgomery served as the cradle of the Confederacy from February 4, 1861, to May 29, 1861. A century later, congregations in African American churches conducted peaceful protests to overturn laws allowing segregation. In 1955, when seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested after boarding a Montgomery bus at Court Square and refusing to give up her seat to white passengers, the modern Civil Rights Movement was born. A new Montgomery minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., was recruited to organize a boycott of city buses. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted a year and ended when a U.S. Supreme Court decision stopped segregated public transportation in 1956.
A must visit in Montgomery is the Rosa Parks Museum and Children's Wing (252 Montgomery St.; 334-241-8615) located on the very site where Mrs. Parks was arrested. The museum chronicles the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the Montgomery Bus Boycott through presentations, newspaper clippings and exhibits, including a replica of the bus on which the civil rights pioneer was riding.
A block away is the Freedom Rides Museum (210 S. Court St.; 334-242-3188) at the historic Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station. Interpretive panels on the outside and contemporary artwork on the inside of the museum tell the story of young Freedom Riders who faced mob violence with non-violence and courage in May 1961. The museum is located in the Court Square Historic District, which includes the Court Square Fountain and more than two dozen buildings that have stood long past many of the businesses that once occupied them.
From the Freedom Rides Museum on Court Street, take the first left on Alabama Street; turn left onto S. Perry Street and then right on Dexter Avenue. Standing gallantly at the top of Dexter Avenue is the Alabama State Capitol (600 Dexter Ave.; 334-242-3935) building, where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as president of the Confederacy in February 1861 and where civil rights activists ended the historic Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. You can enter the Capitol by way of the entrance on Dexter Avenue unless you are traveling with an organized tour group or visiting on Saturday, in which case you must enter via the rear entrance at 1 N. Union Street. Once inside, be sure to ask to go upstairs to see the grand spiral staircases illuminated by beautiful chandeliers. Before departing the Capitol, stop by the Goat Hill Museum Store for unique gift items and Alabama-related books and other memorabilia.
Adjacent to the State Capitol is the First White House of the Confederacy (644 Washington Ave.; 334-242-1861) where Jefferson Davis and his family lived during the brief period when the capital of the Confederacy was in Montgomery. Go next door to the Alabama Department of Archives and History (624 Washington Ave; 334-242-4435). Inside, the Museum of Alabama chronicles three phases in the state's history, including its Native American heritage, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement.
Located a block west of the Capitol is the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (454 Dexter Ave.; 334-263-3970) – the only church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ever served as pastor. The meeting to launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott was held at the church on Dec. 2, 1955. The handsome red brick building was designated a National Historic Landmark on June 3, 1974.
Inside the 130-year-old Dexter Avenue church, a giant mural in the basement highlights the emergence of Dr. King as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement and the journey that took him to his death at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
A block behind the church is the Civil Rights Memorial designed by renowned sculptor Maya Lin. Etched into a granite table overflowing with water are the names of 40 martyrs who died between 1954 and 1968 during the struggle for civil rights. After you read the names of the martyrs and a timeline of landmark events, walk up the entrance at mid-block to enter the Civil Rights Memorial Center (400 Washington Ave.; 334-956-8439) and learn more about this period in American history. The “Here I Stand” exhibits and videos chronicle important events that occurred downtown during the Civil Rights Movement. Before leaving, you'll be given an opportunity to sign a pledge to work for justice on the Wall of Tolerance.
Less than five minutes from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Memorial is the Dexter Parsonage Museum (309 S. Jackson St.; 334-261-3270), where Dr. King and his wife Coretta lived from Sept. 1, 1954 until late 1959 when they moved to Atlanta. Mrs. King and their baby, Yolanda, were home when a bomb damaged the front porch of the parsonage one night during the bus boycott. Nearby is the 1853 Jackson-Community House (409 S. Union St.; 334-221-1973) which has served many functions, including being home to Montgomery's first public library open to African Americans beginning in 1948.
Located a few minutes away from the Dexter Avenue Parsonage Museum is historic Alabama State University (915 S. Jackson St.; 334-229-4100). The National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture (915 S. Jackson St.; 334-229-4876), located on the campus, documents the Civil Rights Movement and Montgomery's role in it. Also on campus are two historic homes: the childhood home of singer Nat “King” Cole and the former home of civil rights pioneer Ralph David Abernathy, both strategically located across from the proposed site of the Montgomery civil rights interpretive center. A more recent civil rights attraction is the Montgomery Interpretive Center (1521 Harris Way; 334-293-0596 or 334-293-0597). It opened in 2021 and tells the story of the final leg of the Selma to Montgomery march, student involvement in the Voting Rights Movement, and the rally at the City of St. Jude the night before marchers made their way to the Capitol.
One of the most popular civil rights attractions in Montgomery is the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice (417 Caroline St.; 334-386-9100), a memorial to the nation’s black lynching victims created on a six-acre site atop a rise overlooking Montgomery. It’s been called one of the most emotionally powerful memorials in the country and been visited by hundreds of thousands of people since its April 2018 opening. EJI also created the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration (400 N Court St.; 334-386-9100), which shows how the vestiges of slavery still haunt modern America.
Learn About Hank Williams and Old Alabama Town
While exploring downtown Montgomery, you'll also want to tour the Hank Williams Museum (118 Commerce St.; 334-262-3600), where you'll find the 1952 baby-blue Cadillac that the singer passed away in on Jan. 1, 1953, rare videos, photographs and more. Each New Year's Day, hundreds of Hank fans brave the wintry elements and gather at Oakwood Cemetery Annex (1304 Upper Wetumpka Rd.; 334-240-4630) to pay tribute to the man who sang his way into the hearts of millions.
The historic cemetery, where the country singer/songwriter is buried, features some of the most elaborate monuments and headstones in the state. It dates back to the early 1800s and is also the burial site for many of Alabama's forefathers. Nearby is a section of the cemetery with the graves of approximately 75 French soldiers from World War II.
Getting to Hank's grave is a bit tricky, particularly if you are from out of town. Heading down East Jefferson Street from downtown Montgomery, you'll want to veer to the left past the Police Department to get on Upper Wetumpka Road. Go to the entrance past St. Margaret's Cemetery to the Oakwood Annex, where you will see a granite Hank Williams marker on the left pointing the way to go. As you enter, begin looking for the tall monument on your left featuring a white, stone-carved cowboy hat. This spot marks the singer's gravesite. Hank's wife Audrey is buried beside him and his mother nearby. The country music legend gave his last performance in Montgomery three days before his death.
Another treasure among Montgomery attractions is Old Alabama Town (301 Columbus St.; 334-240-4500). The six-block-long village features authentic structures from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The buildings have been restored and are open to the public so visitors can learn how early Alabamians lived. The museum collection includes an 1810 tavern, an 1850 dogtrot house, a one-room schoolhouse, a grist mill and more, with the 1850s Ordeman House serving as the nucleus for the historic site. There is no food available here but you are encouraged to bring a picnic lunch and relax in Old Alabama Town's Kiwanis Park or take advantage of some of the nearby restaurants.
Where To Stay
Montgomery offers about 75 hotel lodging facilities, three of which are in the heart of downtown: Embassy Suites (300 Tallapoosa St.; 334-269-5055), DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel (120 Madison Ave.; 334-245-2320), Hampton Inn & Suites (100 Commerce St.; 334-265-1010), and the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa at the Convention Center (201 Tallapoosa St.; 334-481-5000). The Renaissance, situated near Maxwell Air Force Base – the site of aviation history where the Wright Brothers started the first flight school – is a combination of regal architecture and modern amenities, including a rooftop pool. It also features an 1,800-seat performing arts center, a grand exhibit hall, a European spa and two restaurants. For alternative downtown lodging, two historic bed and breakfast establishments are in close proximity: the Lattice Inn (1414 South Hull St.; 334-263-1414) and Red Bluff Cottage (551 Clay St.; 334-264-0056).
Where To Eat
Entertainment and dining in downtown Montgomery centers on The Alley, where you'll find places such as Dreamland (12 West Jefferson St.; 334-273-7427), and Wintzell's Oyster House (105 Commerce St.; 334-262-4257). Not far away, you can savor hot dogs at Chris' Hot Dogs (138 Dexter Ave.; 334-265-6850), a 100-year-old downtown landmark; fried chicken at Martin's Restaurant (1796 Carter Hill Rd.; 334-265-1767), one of the city's oldest restaurants; and fresh vegetables and more at Derk's Filet & Vine (431 Cloverdale Rd.; 334-262-8463).
For a complete list of Montgomery's dining and lodging options, go to www.visitingmontgomery.com
Alabama Shakespeare Festival
A road trip to Montgomery provides a wonderful opportunity for visitors to not only enjoy downtown activities such as cruising the Alabama River aboard the Harriott II Riverboat (255 Commerce St.; 334-625-2100) but venturing out for a night on the town at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (1 Festival Dr.; 334-271-5353). ASF, the state theatre, is among the largest and best-regarded professional theatres in the nation. Located in Blount Cultural Park, near the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts(One Museum Dr.; 334-240-4333), it operates year-round and produces 10 world-class productions a season, including a repertoire of works by William Shakespeare, Broadway musicals, theatre for young audiences and world premieres commissioned through the Southern Writers Project.
Related Road Trips
Selma to Montgomery: Crossing a Bridge into History
The Edmund Pettus Bridge, spanning the Alabama River in Selma, has become one of the most iconic symbols of the modern struggle for civil and voting rights in America. It is also a focal point for the 54-mile route now memorialized as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.