From pre-slavery days to the present, church and religion have been an important part of the fabric of black life in America. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, in particular, the church served as a staging ground for mass meetings and offered a place of refuge for those fighting against Jim Crow laws, which were used to enforce segregation in the South.
On this road trip, you are invited to hit the Alabama Civil Rights Trail, visiting several historic cities and towns to get an inside look at one of the most significant symbols of the Civil Rights Movement — the black church.
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, Montgomery
Begin your road trip in Montgomery at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (454 Dexter Ave.; 334-263-3970). Located downtown, this red-brick church, adjacent to the State Capitol, is where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was propelled into the national spotlight as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
Sitting in the midst of the only church where he served as fulltime pastor (1954-1960), you’ll find yourself humbled as you listen to knowledgeable guides share stories about the inspirational young minister from Atlanta and the strategic planning behind the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott. A mural in the basement of the church depicts scenes of Dr. King’s journey from Montgomery, where he spearheaded the boycott, to Memphis, where he ultimately lost his life on April 4, 1968.
First Baptist Church, Montgomery
From the parsonage, head to First Baptist Church (347 N. Ripley St.; 334-264-6921) across the street from the Montgomery Police Department. It is best remembered for its role in the Civil Rights Movement during the pastorate of the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy (1952-1961). The church and the parsonage where Abernathy lived were bombed in 1957. On May 21, 1961, the building was besieged for 15 hours by 3000 whites who threatened to burn it with some 1500 worshipers and activists inside, including Rev. Abernathy, Rev. King, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and Freedom Riders who had been riding buses throughout the South to protest segregation in interstate bus terminals.
If there’s time, visit the old Greyhound Bus Station, where Freedom Riders were brutally attacked in the city on Mother’s Day, May 14, 1961.
Mt. Gillard Baptist Church, White Hall
From Montgomery, make your way to Mt. Gillard Baptist Church (cir. 1820) (334-875-5738) in White Hall. Though rarely recognized for its involvement, Mt. Gillard was the first church in Lowndes County to permit mass meetings during the Civil Rights Movement. Today, it continues to host civil rights meetings and activities, and stands in the community as a landmark in the struggle for freedom.
While in White Hall, stop by the Lowndes Interpretive Center. Situated at the mid-point of the Selma-to-Montgomery Historic Trail, this is a great place to get an inside look at the struggle for voting rights in America.
Brown Chapel, Selma
Continue to Selma for a visit to historic Brown Chapel AME Church (410 Martin Luther King St., 334-874-7897), which played a pivotal role in the events that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The church was the site of numerous mass meetings and served as a staging ground for the voting rights marches, the most violent of which occurred on March 7, 1965. During this event, now known as “Bloody Sunday,” a group of 600 marchers attempted to march to the State Capitol in Montgomery to protest the brutal killing of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson of Marion and to gain passage for the voting rights act. The marchers were forced back to the church after being beaten on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge by state troopers, sprayed with tear gas and run down by sheriff deputies on horseback.
First Baptist, Selma
A few blocks away from Brown Chapel is First Baptist (Colored) Church (709 Martin Luther King St., 334-874-7331), one of the first churches in the area to host meetings held by the Dallas County Voter League, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. A few days before the Selma-to-Montgomery March that began on March 21, 1965 and successfully ended at the State Capitol in Montgomery on March 25, hundreds of demonstrators, black and white, filtered into First Baptist eager to be examined by physicians and sign up for the 54-mile march to Montgomery or simply lend their support to those who would be participating.
16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham
From Selma, head to Birmingham to the Sixteen Street Baptist Church (1530 Sixth Ave. N.; 205-251-9402). Organized in 1873 as the First Colored Baptist Church, Sixteenth Street was the first black congregation in Birmingham. The present church, completed in 1911, became the site of mass meetings in 1963 which resulted in citizen protests as well as police retaliation and brutality. During this period of grave unrest, Dr. King, Rev. Shuttlesworth and other clergy provided inspirational leadership to the marchers, many of whom were children.
On Sunday, September 15, 1963, the church became known around the world when a bomb exploded under the steps, killing four young girls preparing for Sunday School and injuring more than 20 other members. The horrendous events that took place at the church that day, coupled with violence in other parts of the city, forced white leaders to confront Birmingham’s decades-old racist reputation.
Make plans to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute . Located adjacent to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in the Civil Rights Historic District, it pays homage to the movement and depicts its many struggles through artifacts, photos and interactive exhibits.
Final Stop: Bethel Baptist Church, Birmingham
Bethel Baptist Church (3200 28th Ave. N.; 205-322-5260), in Birmingham’s Collegeville neighborhood, was built in 1926. It served as headquarters for the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) from 1956 to 1961. Led by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the organization focused on legal and nonviolent direct action against segregated accommodations, transportation, schools and employment discrimination. Shuttlesworth served as pastor of Bethel from 1953 to 1961. The church buildings were bombed on three separate occasions, first on December 25, 1956, again on June 29, 1958, and lastly on December 14, 1962. The congregation eventually moved to a new sanctuary a block away.
Note: Several of the churches included in this road trip have National Historic Landmark status with three of them, Dexter Avenue, Sixteenth Street and Bethel Baptist, being poised collectively for designation as a World Heritage Site.
Where to Stay and Dine
The Dexter Parsonage
A must-visit is the Dexter Parsonage (309 S. Jackson St.; 334-261-3270), where Dr. King and his family lived while in Montgomery. Now a museum and educational center, the parsonage and the adjacent Interpretive Center provide an in-depth look into the family, community and pastoral life of the reluctant leader who became a champion for justice and nonviolence.
Related Road Trips
Selma to Montgomery: Crossing a Bridge into History
The Edmund Pettus Bridge, spanning the Alabama River in Selma, has become one of the most iconic symbols of the modern struggle for civil and voting rights in America. It is also a focal point for the 54-mile route now memorialized as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.