If you happen to arrive in Montgomery, Alabama, on a Sunday morning, then the best place to dive into Deep South culture is Dexter Avenue Church. Now I’m not one for religion, but Mass here is definitely an experience. Beyond the uplifting songs of gospel belters and general sense of goodwill, what really put this little church on the map was its former pastor, Martin Luther King. His office in the basement looks much the same now as it did then. Here, he planned the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the famous protest against racial segregation on public transit, which began just down the street when Rosa Parks boarded a bus and then refused to give up her seat to a white person. You might also recognize the nearby Alabama Capitol Building, as the site of Dr King’s moving “How Long, Not Long” speech?
With a rich history of resistance and a major role in the fight for voting rights, this is a seminal destination on the USA’s incredible civil rights trail. Moving away from Dexter Avenue, the city’s little downtown has done a lot of work to fix itself up. Renovated lofts now occupy previously derelict buildings, cool bars and cafes like Prevail Union, which serves up some of the best coffee in Alabama, are opening up on and around the main street. There are startup workspaces, new creative initiatives, and a pretty park for strolling along the Mississippi River. Plus a stellar craft brewery called Common Bond that prides itself on providing a space and medium that brings people from different walks of life together to sit down over a beer. And the city’s really taking pride in its new food game.
While all this is cool, if you find yourself craving some more traditional southern comfort food, then pay a visit to Derk’s Filet and Vine, a humble Montgomery institution. It’s a traditional meat and three where you pick a meat and three sides. But vegetarians will still be able to pack a heaping plate here. And if you would like to wash this down with a little drink, they have got over 1500 bottles of wine and 600 different beers to choose from. It’s a heavy meal for sure, but it’s delicious.
Just around the corner, you will find the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. The Fitzgeralds resided here in 1931, where they wrote portions of Save Me the Waltz and Tender is the Night. Today, the house is the only museum dedicated to the life and legacy of these two artists. And the top floor is actually a B&B, which can be rented out for tourists or as part of a scholar and artist residency program. It’s furnished with some of the Fitzgerald’s original possessions, and even the original wallpaper, not to mention a selection of vinyl that’s an exact match of Zelda’s personal record collection.
Still, of all the attractions in Montgomery, the most powerful may just be the newest. There’s the Civil Rights Memorial, which honors those killed in the struggle for equality and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, commemorating more than 4400 African Americans who were brutally murdered by white lynch mobs. It’s emotionally devastating, moving and life-changing, a vital lens through which to view your time spent in the South. It also provides a new space for dialogue about the legacy of racial terror in America.
Similarly, the Legacy Museum links America’s history of racial injustice to the country’s current prison system, the largest in the world. While this history is haunting, its place at the forefront of the South, as opposed to something swept under the rug, is promising. Montgomery, claiming ownership of its past, will continue to keep it relevant in the eyes of the world, a vital, fascinating and worthwhile place to visit.