My repeated visits to Alabama’s capital remind me what we can accomplish when we fight for justice.
I first visited Montgomery, Alabama, more than 30 years ago, long before there was a designated Civil Rights Trail. As an African American who has lived my entire life in the North, I felt compelled to walk the city’s streets and trace the epic journey organized and carried out by Alabama’s black population, through a series of America’s most iconic historic events. I admit to being hesitant about that first trip because of tales I had heard of both the Old South and the new Southern dynamic. I had been warned by legendary singer and Civil Rights activist, Nina Simone, when she meaningfully wailed, “Alabama has me so upset.”
The significance of Montgomery cannot be overstated; it has always been a microcosm of American history. Europeans and their slaves began to settle in the area in the 1720s, and by the 1800s, Montgomery was an important slave port.
Throughout my many visits, one of my favorite sites on the now-documented Civil Rights Trail has always been the State Capitol steps. They offer a sweeping view down Dexter Avenue that includes Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor and where the 1955 bus boycott was organized. Ten years after that boycott, on the State Capitol steps, M.L.K. delivered his, “How Long, Not Long” speech at the conclusion of the Voting Rights March.
I am often asked why I return to Montgomery so often. The short answer is that there are always additions to the state’s Civil Rights Trail, inaugurated in 2017. Last year, a life-size statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled near her usual bus stop. In 2018, the spectacular Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened—sites that are committed to documenting, teaching, and highlighting ongoing issues of race and equality. The Memorial, a hillside complex, is dedicated to bringing attention to African American victims of racial violence. A winding path takes you to a pavilion with steles inscribed with more than 4,000 names of victims of lynching and a sculptural diorama depicting the horrors experienced by African slaves.
The more relevant answer to that question, I feel deeply that every step I take on Montgomery’s Civil Rights Trail is taken on sacred ground. It reminds me that the price of freedom is vigilance and that ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary deeds and change the world. That message is as relevant today as it was more than 50 years ago.