Trail of Tears and Triumph. Alabama offers tours to significant sites in the history of the civil rights movement. BLACK HERITAGE
IT would have been unthinkable a generation ago. But times have changed since racial oppression here shocked a nation into action. Now, in an about-face from the past, the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel has organized a series of tours to sites where black citizens made their mark on the state and on the world.
In so doing, the state is tapping into what appears to be a renewed interest nationwide in black American history. Since the success of the television documentary ``Eyes on the Prize,'' the civil rights movement has been the subject of movies (the controversial ``Mississippi Burning'' and the soon to be released ``The Stick Wife''), museum exhibitions, and new scholarly research.
``It's just enough distance between that time and now to start to explore the civil rights movement,'' notes Marian Moore, who recently helped arrange an exhibition of civil rights artifacts at the National Afro-American Museum in Wilberforce, Ohio.
After a lull in the 1970s, earlier periods are also attracting heightened interest. Both blacks and whites are avidly collecting black memorabilia from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s.
An estimated 10,000 people have toured Alabama's black historic sites, which include slave quarters and black universities as well as scenes of civil rights struggles. Some 150,000 people have taken copies of the state's free Black Heritage booklet.
The renewed interest is attributed in part to curiosity about a relatively unexplored area of history and in part to black identity and pride.
``Tour groups are looking for something new,'' says Frances Smiley, state coordinator of Alabama's Black Heritage program. The tours - to 82 historic sites - were originally planned to attract black Northerners to the state. But Ms. Smiley believes they have attracted as many whites as blacks.
``So much of what happened here changed the history of America,'' she says, noting that the marches and bus boycotts led by Martin Luther King Jr. resulted in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. ``People are just curious.''
``There's a generation of young blacks who don't know very much about this,'' notes Ed Hall, the former state tourism director who proposed the tours in 1983. ``I felt that the time was right. Without something like this Black Heritage tour, what is a 16- or 17-year-old supposed to think about how far we have come and where we are trying to go?''
But both blacks and whites find that examining black history is often an emotional experience, a personal coming-to-terms with parts of the American past now considered tragic and shameful.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Alabama, where black accomplishments are lauded in a booklet signed by former Gov. George C. Wallace, who once personally blocked black citizens' opportunities for higher education.
``Not all whites can accept it,'' admits Mary Ann Neeley, director of the Landmarks Foundation of Montgomery and a historian who helped research black historic sites in the city. ``For a while the wounds were rather raw. But the city as a whole has matured.''
One of the most painful of the Alabama sites is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where Ku Klux Klansmen placed a bomb in 1963 that killed four black children.
``I think everybody has some difficulty with that,'' says Mr. Hall, now director of the Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. ``But we can't deny our past. To do so is wrong.''
``We're talking about human suffering and tragedy. It's hard,'' says Dr. Moore, director of Detroit's Museum of African American History. In the Detroit museum, she notes, many children and some adults react emotionally to an exhibit including a replica of a slave ship.
``The psychological wound has still not been healed,'' she says. ``We have guilt in our country. It's inherent because of the injustices. We are still coming to grips with this as a society.''
But visitors seem to find in the historic sites a kind of solace and symbol for a better world. The blacks and whites who quietly gathered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church last September on the 25th anniversary of the bombing used the event to dedicate a Civil Rights Institute on a lot facing the church.
Sponsored by the city of Birmingham to study human rights around the world, the institute will ``look at the worldwide implications of civil rights activities that started right here,'' says Mr. Hall.
One of most popular of the Alabama sites, Martin Luther King's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, now contains a mural depicting the events of Dr. King's life and the triumphs that came from periods of suffering.
``It's neither black history nor white history. It's our history,'' says Ms. Neeley, noting that the two races must work together to prevent racial oppression from recurring.
``In time, for a variety of reasons, people come to a level of appreciation,'' says Paul Coates, reference librarian at Washington, D.C.'s Howard University, which has collected Afro-American historical documents since 1913.
By studying and understanding black history, many believe, the nation can come to terms with past injustices and move on in building a better society.
``What we're trying to do is get closer to the truth,'' says Dr. Moore. ``Truth heals.''