Alabama Faces Up To Racial Roots, Puts Selma on the Map
IT was the cradle of the Confederacy, champion of Jim Crow laws, and center of numerous civil-rights struggles. But for many years after those racial conflicts had boiled across Alabama, the state shied away from its turbulent past.
Today, that is changing. Alabama is facing up to its racially charged roots. In a move that hints of a profound rethinking of Southern heritage, the state is preserving and promoting the ground where racial battles were fought.
"It is truly historic to see it happening in Alabama," says William Ferris, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. "It's a model for what many other Southern states will try to do."
Last month Alabama received a $1.5 million federal grant to turn Highway 80 between Selma and Montgomery - site of the Voting Rights March in 1965 - into a civil rights memorial. The money will fund historical markers, a visitor's center, and ways to make the area pedestrian-friendly.
A Civil War trail is also in the works, and in several months the state will publish a central Alabama black-heritage guide that promotes black heritage in Selma, Montgomery, and Tuskegee.
"We're not saying that [many of the events] were shining moments in our history," says Aubrey Miller, director of the Alabama Bureau of Tourism in Montgomery. "But I think our history has taught us some things, and we in turn have taught the nation some things. We have gone from Civil War to civil rights to civilization. It's a progressive history, and that's what we want to share with our visitors."
Alabama's effort is not new. It began about 12 years ago when the state became one of the first in the country to produce a cultural heritage guide that identified black historical sites. But the initiative to spotlight the Civil War and civil rights together has been growing, especially in the last five years. Montgomery, for instance, has erected 12 billboards on main thoroughfares, six of which promote the city as the birthplace of the two events. And state tourism officials are encouraging towns around the Deep South state to develop their own initiatives if their locales have historic significance.
Alabama's emphasis on promoting its past symbolizes how much the state has changed, Southern experts say. "It shows a good bit about the way many people in Alabama have not only accepted the reality that the civil rights movement occurred but are glad it occurred and point to it much as people in Boston point to the fact that the American Revolution happened there," says Tennant McWilliams, a professor of history at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. "It's incorporated in the public life of the state as a positive experience."
The Center for the Study of Southern Culture's Mr. Ferris sees similar efforts growing in Mississippi, specifically the creation of illustrated guides identifying black history and culture. "That's new within the last two to three years, and it followed what was done in Alabama," he says.
In addition to the cultural shift it represents, tourism officials say the promotion of state history is also having a practical effect. In the past five years, Montgomery has seen a 33 percent increase in the number of tourists, says Andrew Britton, vice president of tourism development for the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce. Whereas in the past the state didn't attract many international visitors, much of the interest now is coming from Japan and Europe.