9 December 2019 by Emily Newton-Smith
In the 1950s and 1960s, in America's Deep South, history was being made. Alabama saw tragedy unfold in the emotional clashes that characterised the civil rights movement, while almost simultaneously, the American music industry was forever changed by two recording studios that came to prominence in a small town on the Tennessee River. Today, Alabama showcases both sides of its mid-20th-century history in equal measure.
It was in Montgomery, Alabama's capital, where Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her bus seat in 1955, triggering a series of bus boycotts that marked a shift in attitude and the start of a new phase in the growing civil rights movement. Montgomery is also home to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church, and the courthouse of Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., whose landmark decisions helped further the efforts of protestors towards desegregation. Today, visitors can see all of these sites, including the spot where Rosa Parks was arrested, as part of the official United States Civil Rights Trail.
Alabama's Civil Rights Trail
Of course, Montgomery's Alabama State Capitol Building was also the end-point of one of three famous protest marches from Selma, crucial to the successful passing of 1965's Voting Rights Act. Selma's role in Alabama's civil rights history is pivotal; iconic images of the Edmund Pettus Bridge are synonymous with the events of the time. Indeed, the first march from Selma, on a Sunday in March, 1965, ended in police brutality and violence, captured and broadcast on television to the horror of the nation. Today, Selma serves as a symbol of hope and change, and the bridge and the many museums and monuments across the city are fascinating reminders of Alabama's complex past.
Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma
Less than two hours' drive north from Selma, Birmingham, Alabama's largest city, is just as significant. Barack Obama designated its Civil Rights District a national monument while he was in office, highlighting the importance of such landmarks as A. G. Gaston Motel, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the 16th Street Baptist Church – the site of the tragic Ku Klux Clan bombings that claimed four young lives in 1963. As sobering as a visit here may be, the church attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.
And, as Alabama's largest city, Birmingham has plenty to offer beyond its historical legacy. Unsurprisingly, it boasts an authentic Southern feel, especially when it comes to food – think fried chicken and collard greens – and music. The Jazz Hall of Fame in the city's downtown tells the story of Birmingham's musical roots and the nearby nightclubs are still hotspots for live jazz, while the Carver Theatre, which was once frequented by legends like Duke Ellington, continues to shine a light on fresh, local talent.
Alabama's music scene
It's Muscle Shoals, however, that is Alabama's true musical claim to fame. Home to two of the world's most iconic recording studios, FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, this little town is responsible for some of the biggest records of the twentieth century – including Percy Sledge’s ‘When A Man Loves a Woman’ and 'Brown Sugar' by The Rolling Stones. Those considering a Deep South music drive simply have to stop here. The unique hillbilly-come-rock 'n' roll-come-blues sound of sessions band 'The Swampers' attracted everyone from Aretha Franklin and Etta James to Otis Redding in their 1960s heyday.
Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
Feeling inspired? Alabama has plenty to offer the discerning traveller; pair its musical and cultural significance with great food, warm and friendly people, and some amazing sights – don't miss the mountainous north, the pristine beaches of the Gulf Shores and the world-famous space centre in Huntsville. Find out more about tailor-made travel to Alabama here, or give us a call for help planning your next trip.