There are many reasons people visit Alabama, to see sporting events, the space connection in Huntsville or the beaches along the gulf coast. However, civil rights tourism is often overlooked by the masses. This dark time in the state’s history is drawing visitors from all over. Visitors like Betty and Phil Histon from Corvallis Oregon. They’re in Alabama, like many tourists, to try the local barbecue and the see the sites. When we met them they were in the Civil Rights Interpretive Center is Selma…
“We have heard of the civil rights movement since we were children and wanted to see where some of these things took place, a part of history we wanted to see and be a part of.”
The Histons are not alone. Lee Sentell, Tourism Director for the state of Alabama says the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham draws in around 150,000 people a year. The business is so big it's enough for three cities to fight over.
“There is no agreement in this state as to which state owns the civil rights movement. People in Montgomery think that everything happened in the Montgomery area, people in Birmingham think only the major events happened in Birmingham, so Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery are three cities where more tourists visit because that is where the landmarks are.”
If visiting iconic sites from the civil rights era as a tourist sounds unusual, you may be shocked to know, former Governor George Wallace helped get civil rights tourism going. The same George Wallace who stood in the schoolhouse door on the University of Alabama’s campus in 1963. He was convinced by Ed Hall, the tourism director at the time that if Alabama did not try to tell its story, then somebody else would. Every year civil rights supporters gather at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to re-enact what is known as “Bloody Sunday.” That was when demonstrators fighting for the voting rights act were attacked by police officers. This year’s event was especially big, since 2013 marks fifty years after pivotal moments like the stand at the school house door in Tuscaloosa and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. This year the event drew civil rights leaders like Congressman John Lewis, the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. It also had current leaders like U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Vice President Joe Biden. Those in attendance have the opportunity to cross the bridge, many sing as they do, following in the footsteps of those who continue to fight for equality. Selma’s mayor, George Patrick Evans says events like this are very important to his city. He says people need to remember what happened in the past so they can move forward.
"It helps the economy naturally, that’s one way to look at it. It helps to promote the city of Selma as being the Queen City of the Black Belt. All of the history of 1965 and what happened here years ago, folks like to come back and be reminded of what happened.”
Join us in the coming weeks as we take a look at other sites along Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail.