MONTGOMERY, Alabama — A memorial to the victims of racial lynchings and a new museum in Montgomery, Alabama, have gotten a lot of attention since opening in late April.
Some 10,000 people visited the memorial and museum in the first week. Tourism officials estimate they could attract 100,000 more visitors to this Southern city in the next year. One young man, Dimitri Digbeu Jr., who drove 13 hours from Baltimore to see the memorial, said he thought it had singlehandedly “rebranded” Montgomery.
But tourism challenges exist. Few direct flights serve Montgomery, and it’s a three-hour drive from Atlanta.
“How do we get people to come here and make the pilgrimage here?” said filmmaker Ava DuVernay at a conference marking the memorial launch. “We have to be evangelists to go out and say what you saw here and what you experienced here. … Don’t just leave feeling, ‘That was amazing. I cried.’”
DuVernay, whose Oscar-nominated movie “Selma” described the 1965 civil rights march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, noted that the memorial and museum were built by legal advocacy group the Equal Justice Initiative . “These people are lawyers fighting for people on death row,” DuVernay added. “They’re not thinking about how to market this to the wider world.”
Some travelers say the new memorial and museum have changed their minds about visiting the Deep South. “As a black American, I’m not crazy about the idea of driving down streets named after Confederate generals and averting my eyes from Confederate flags,” said New Yorker Brian Major. “But reconciliation and peace-making has to begin somewhere and for a project as worthy and important as the lynching memorial, I would be willing to make the trip.”
DuVernay put it this way: “This has to be a place where every American who believes in justice and dignity must come.”
For those who do visit, here’s a guide.
Lynching Memorial and Legacy Museum
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors more than 4,000 individuals who were lynched between 1877 and 1950. Their names are inscribed on 800 steel columns, one for every U.S. county where lynchings happened. Most counties are in the South, but there are also markers for lynchings in states like Minnesota and New York.
The markers begin at eye level, then gradually move overhead, evoking the specter of hanging bodies. Some of the killings are described in detail: Victims were lynched for asking for a glass of water, for voting, for testifying against a white man.
The new museum, which is called The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, explores slavery and segregation in horrific detail and argues that when segregation ended, mass incarceration began. The museum cites statistics showing 300,000 people were in prison in 1971 compared with 2.3 million today, and that one in three black boys will be jailed in the 21st century if trends continue. Exhibits offer details of innocent men on death row and children imprisoned in adult facilities where they were brutalized.
Montgomery resident Shawna Brannon volunteered at the opening and said visitors of all races wept and shook their heads in dismay. “Once you go through, you will never be the same,” she said.
Slavery and Civil Rights
The Legacy Museum is located on the site of a warehouse where thousands of enslaved people were held before being sold at auction nearby. When the Civil War began, Montgomery was the Confederacy’s first capitol.
Montgomery’s Rosa Parks Museum marks the spot where a black seamstress was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on a bus to a white passenger. That sparked a bus boycott by African-Americans that ended when the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation on public buses unconstitutional.
The bus boycott also turned a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. into a leader of the civil rights movement. That story is told at Montgomery’s Dexter Parsonage Museum , where King and his family lived when he was pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The parsonage porch still bears a crevice where a bomb landed (no one was hurt). Outside the Kings’ bedroom is a telephone that rang all night with threatening phone calls.
The Freedom Rides Museum honors black and white students who rode Greyhound buses together to challenge segregation. A white mob attacked them when they arrived in Montgomery while police did nothing. That spurred the Kennedy Administration to send in federal marshals.
Michelle Browder’s More Than Tours offers a wonderful bus tour that tells many of these stories and also shows off Montgomery’s resurgent downtown, including the restored Kress Building, now home to an art gallery and cafe.
For inexpensive, hearty lunches featuring fried chicken, turnip greens, catfish, okra and ribs, head to Davis Cafe, Farmers Market Cafe and Derk’s Filet & Vine. For a wonderful fancy dinner, try Vintage Year. Cahawba House and Shashy’s serve up great breakfasts. The Tucker Pecan store sells butter pecan ice cream and souvenir bags of pecans.
Fans of country music legend Hank Williams should visit his impressive gravesite at Montgomery’s Oakwood Annex Cemetery. Downtown, the Hank Williams Museum displays the Cadillac he was riding in when he died at age 29.
Montgomery’s Old Cloverdale neighborhood is home to the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. The “Great Gatsby” writer and his wife lived here in the 1930s, and you can even rent an Airbnb apartment upstairs, complete with record player and jazz albums.