MONTGOMERY, Ala. - As Americans send the country's first black president to the White House, Alabamans are embracing the state's role in the civil rights struggle and saluting the heroes who helped pave the way for Barack Obama's Election Day victory.
Nowhere is the memory of the tumultuous civil rights era more tangible than in Alabama, where ordinary people started a movement that would change the nation forever. Widely considered unfriendly and even dangerous for black people, the state saw its economic development, tourism and college enrollment suffer for decades because of its history of racial segregation and the brutal civil rights battles of the 1960s.
Now, nearly a half century later, Alabama is showcasing its civil rights history for visitors from around the world.
"Ten years ago in Alabama, blacks and whites had just started to socialize together. Now we're beginning to do the hard work of talking about the way things were back then and why they were that way," said Georgette Norman, director of the Rosa Parks Library & Museumin Montgomery. "This museum was designed to promote that kind of dialogue."
The Rosa Parks Library, the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church and the Civil Rights Memorial Center here in Montgomery are just a few of the sites in Alabama's civil rights and black heritage tourism project that have drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors and given local residents a newfound pride in the state, after years of enduring what some saw as a "shameful history."
Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee also have begun to celebrate their civil rights past, but Alabama is universally considered the mecca.
Interest in Alabama's civil rights past started naturally as people from around the world trekked to the state and started asking questions about churches, jails, streets and other sites that figured prominently in the movement, said author Jim Carrier, whose book, A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement, chronicles the nation's struggle over racial equality from 1954 to 1965.
The 1955 bus boycott here in this capital city - launched when NAACP member Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man - is widely seen as the beginning of the civil rights movement. And the violent 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery is considered the catalyst for passage of the federal voting rights act five months later.
Alabama is home to numerous national historic sites, including the 54-mile Selma march route on Highway 80 . The first civil rights memorial in the country was established here in 1989 by the Southern Poverty Law Center and tourists already were visiting the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where four young black girls died in a 1963 racially motivated bombing. Here in Montgomery, history buffs for years have flocked to the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached and organized the Montgomery bus boycott.
But state promotion of the civil rights sites and the state's black heritage started in 2004 when Republican Gov. Bob Riley launched the so-called Black Belt Action Committee. In an effort to bring economic relief to a predominantly black, 19-county region in the south central part of the state that suffered from substandard schools and an aging, unskilled workforce, Riley called on cabinet members and other experts to create a new tourism program.
"Promotion of Alabama's pivotal role in civil rights history and its rich black culture absolutely would not have happened without the governor's backing," said Frances Smiley, project director with the Alabama Department of Tourism .
This year, Alabama is distributing a civil rights museum brochure at welcome centers on interstate highways and other locations throughout the state. And the governor personally oversaw publication of a 42-page book, the Alabama Black Belt Nature and Heritage Trail , which guides visitors to more than 50 historic, natural and cultural sites in the region.
While nearly all of the financial support for the state's museums and monuments has come from private donors and the federal government, official state promotion of black civil rights heroes marks a sea change in Southern politics, Carrier said.
"It took a lot of years to change a shameful history into something they could be proud of," Carrier told Stateline.org. "For too long, the state cowered behind the image of (former governor) George Wallace, instead of bringing out Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the legions of other folks that put their bodies on the line and changed America."
The Black Belt Action Committee, led by Tina Jones of the University of West Alabama , is asking Congress to designate several sites in the depressed region as National Heritage Areas , a move that Jones says could boost tourism, create jobs and result in federal grants.
One example is Greensboro, Ala., where a home that once served as a safe house for Martin Luther King, Jr., after his life was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan has been converted into a black history museum that includes slavery artifacts from the area.
"With heritage areas, we're not looking for a Disney World experience. We want people to come into communities and see them as they are. Then we expect locals will open bed and breakfasts and restaurants," Jones said.
Another effect of the state's growing tourism program is that visitors are spreading the word that Alabama has changed since the troubled civil rights era.
The state "languished" during the era of segregationist Gov. George Wallace and his wife, Gov. Lurleen Wallace and for decades after, according to state historian Wayne Flynt. Alabama began to come back only in the 1990s, he wrote in the Encyclopedia of Alabama , when "a new generation of socially enlightened entrepreneurs and their allies led the way toward racial reconciliation and educational modernization."
"The stereotypes of Alabama and the South as racist have been unfairly applied. I really see enormous improvements in race relations," civil rights attorney Morris Dees told Stateline.org . "Alabama has the highest percentage of black officials of any state in the nation," said Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center , a research group that advocates for minorities and the poor.
And experts say the improvements account for much of the state's recent success in attracting new businesses.
In five of the last six years, Alabama has surpassed all other Southern states in economic development, becoming the fifth largest automobile manufacturing state and home to a growing steel industry, said Jeff Emerson, spokesman for the governor. Mercedes, Honda and Hundai already have plants in the state, and Alabama is vying with Tennessee this year for a new Volkswagen factory, he said. Steel manufacturers ThyssenKrupp and U.S. Steele also recently built factories in the state.
In 2006, the state Legislature - where one in four lawmakers is black - officially pardoned Rosa Parks. The following year, the governor signed a resolution expressing "profound regret" for the state's role in slavery.
Still, the realities of Alabama society have made progress difficult. The state's influential historical societies are not eager to celebrate the state's civil rights past, Norman said. "Alabamans have had their dirty laundry aired under a national spotlight long enough. The old guard doesn't want any more of that kind of attention drawn to the state."
But the tourists will help create jobs for some of its poorest residents, Riley and others calculate. And local residents who work or volunteer at the historic sites say the experience has helped them - and visitors - work out old conflicts.
"The exhibits bring out every kind of emotion you can imagine," said Tina Smiley, tour guide at the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail . "Some black families are returning to the state for the first time since the 1960s. A lot of them see people they knew in the old film clips and photos. They cry. A lot of people get angry. Every one has a different story."
Smiley and other tour guides say the most common question tourists ask is whether race relations really have improved in Alabama.
Here in Montgomery, at the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, 26-year-old tour guide Dannielle Traylor, who is black, tells visitors she rarely encounters racial discrimination in Alabama. "Whatever segregation we may have now is self-imposed. We have white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods because we choose to be with our people."
But 55-year-old Joanne Bland, co-founder of the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute says racial tensions linger, at least in Selma.
The majority black town got its first black mayor, James Perkins, in 2000 and days before he took office, the former white mayor of 36 years and onetime segregationist, Joe Smitherman, had a statue of civil war general and founding Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, Nathan Bedford Forrest, erected on city property. Bland was among the activists who worked with the mayor to get the statue moved to a local cemetery.
And an ongoing trial, in which local used car dealer and retired state trooper, James Fowler, is accused of murdering black civil rights activist Jimmy Lee Jackson in 1965, make it hard for people of a certain age to forget about the horrors of the period, Bland said.
At age 11, Bland and her family left their Selma home to join hundreds of others in what would become a historic march to the state capital to protest so-called Jim Crow laws that prevented blacks from voting. March 7, 1965, known as Bloody Sunday, marked the beginning of one of the most violent periods in American history.
The Selma protesters, who were joined by black and white civil rights activists from around the country, set out on foot for the state capital here. Under the lens of national TV cameras, the marchers were beaten by state troopers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of Selma, and forced to turn back. On March 21, President Lyndon Johnson ordered the Alabama National Guard to escort the protesters to this city, where they arrived, 25,000-strong, on March 25.
Bland, whose sister was badly beaten on Bloody Sunday, says talking to people about the movement has helped her heal. "You go through something like that and you don't ever want to think about it again. But these visitors have made me look at it, and that's what I needed."
Bland proudly recalled then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's recent visit to Selma to commemorate Bloody Sunday. "He called me on my cell phone and said he wouldn't walk over that bridge without me." On March 4, 2007, Bland locked arms with the nation's first black man who would be elected president and walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge - for the first time since 1965.