When lawyer and social activist Bryan Stevenson moved to Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1980s, he found a city with dozens of monuments and memorials to the Confederacy without any reference to the brutality of slavery.
Stevenson, whose career has been focused on seeking justice for wrongly convicted death-row prisoners and children unfairly prosecuted as adults, is executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.
In April 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative opened The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, located on the site in Montgomery where Black people were enslaved, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice nearby.
The museum and memorial, both widely acclaimed nationally and globally, were stopovers on a seven-day civil rights tour in September sponsored by Road Scholar. It was emotional and eye-opening.
The trip began in Atlanta, Georgia, a forefront of the civil rights movement, and hometown of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a martyr of the cause.
We saw King’s boyhood home; historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he and his father preached; and his burial site, located in the MLK Jr. National Historic Park. We toured the APEX Museum, whose mission is to interpret and present history from an African American perspective while high- lighting the contributions of African Americans to society. And we got an extensive guided tour of the Georgia State Capitol, whose governors included segregationist Lester Maddox and Jimmy Carter, a champion of civil rights, who later became the 39th president of the United States.
After three days in Atlanta, our group of 18 moved on to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital. An active slave-trading center from 1850 to the end of the Civil War 15 years later, Montgomery was also a center of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
Among the sites we saw were Troy University’s Rosa Park Museum, named for the civil rights icon who was arrested on Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery, for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger. This sparked the year long Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by King, which boosted the civil rights struggle.
This had special meaning to me since I had heard Mrs. Parks speak at a political rally more than three decades earlier.
Also in Montgomery, we saw the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where King served as a pastor from 1954 to 1960, and the site of mass meetings for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Also, there was the Freedom Rides Museum, the converted Greyhound bus station, restored to look like it did in 1961. It was the site of the attack on the Freedom Riders when they arrived at the bus station. In contrast, we also got a glimpse of the First White House of the Confederacy, where Jefferson Davis lived until 1861, when the Confederate capital was moved to Richmond.
Without question, the highlights of the stay in Montgomery were experiencing the Equal Justice Institute museums. The Legacy Museum depicts the terror of slavery, lynchings and racial segregation. It comes alive dramatically through technology. It reminded me of the feeling I had during my first visit to Yad Vashem — The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.
The National Memorial to Peace and Justice is dedicated to the memory of the victims of lynching. The Equal Justice Initiative documented more than 4,000 racial terror lynchings between Reconstruction and World War II.
Located on six acres of land, the museum suspends 800 steel monuments to represent the counties in the United States where racial lynchings took place, each engraved with the names of its victims. Included in the list are 12 documented lynchings in Indiana. On Aug. 7, 1930, a mob of 10,000 to 15,000 whites abducted three young black men from the jail in Marion, Indiana, lynching Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. A photograph of the two victims’ hanging bodies is regarded as one of the most iconic images of an American lynching.
Our next stop on the trail was Selma, site of the three famous Selma to Montgomery marches in March 1965, where thousands marched to the Alabama state capitol to secure voting rights for African Americans.
We walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site for the first nonviolent march named Bloody Sunday. It was on March 7, 1965, that marchers were attacked by state troopers and local officers, resulting in worldwide attention and passage by Congress of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The best-known marcher that day was civil rights activist John Lewis, who represented Georgia in the U.S. House from 1987 until his death in 2020.
Our march across the bridge was led by T. Dianne Harris, who gave us a detailed first-person account of her feelings that day. At the age of 15, she was among the Bloody Sunday marchers.
Our last stop was in the city of Birmingham. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute gives an interactive overview of Birmingham’s role in the civil rights struggle. The actual door from the jail where King wrote his famous “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” is on display.
Just across the street, through a driving rain, we walked through Kelly Ingram Park, site of the organized protests and boycotts in May 1963, where Bull Connor turned fire hoses and dogs on protestors. A new statue memorializes four young girls killed in a horrific bombing on Sept. 15, 1963, at the nearby 16h Street Baptist Church.
Several lectures and talks by a variety of civil rights experts added meaning and depth to the tour. Our group leader from Road Scholar, Camilla Comerford of Atlanta, was knowledgeable and delightful.
I read many of the books on the list Road Scholar sent in advance of the tour. The one I recommend the most is “Just Mercy: A story of Justice and Redemption,” by Bryan Stevenson, which tells the story of Walter McMillian, a Black man wrongfully put on death row.
Stevenson believes Americans must come to “truth and reconciliation” with our nation’s past and pay attention today to poverty, suffering, exclusion, unfairness and injustice.
The tour brought that message to the forefront.