Experience Alabama’s capital through the eyes of a freedom fighter, while also taking in the cuisine and some literary history.
Montgomery, Alabama, is a perfect blend of old and new. You can’t go a few steps without experiencing civil rights history, but the city also has a great dining scene, beautiful riverfront downtown, charming neighborhoods and the Jazz Age influence of a fashionable literary couple.
Harper Lee and Truman Capote get most of Alabama’s literary fame—and deservedly so—but F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald left quite a mark on Zelda’s hometown of Montgomery. Visiting the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in Old Cloverdale is a treat, and now fans can spend the night in either the Scott or Zelda suite upstairs. Don’t miss the little library in front of the house or Zelda’s garden in back.
Have dinner at Central in downtown Montgomery and get an upscale taste of the state’s flavors with dishes like Aged Cheddar Pimento Cheese (a staple in Alabama), Alabama Gulf Crab Fried Rice, Hot Honey Fried Chicken and Jake’s Mile High Lemon Meringue Pie for dessert. A great wine list and cocktails like the Old Montgomery (Rittenhouse rye, orange bitters, and sweet vermouth) round out the meal.
After dinner, take a walk through downtown and check out the beautiful Court Square Fountain, topped with the Goddess of Youth and said to have been a favorite spot of Zelda’s for skinny dipping.
Your civil rights tour of Montgomery will take a whole day (if not two), so leave plenty of time and fuel up on the weekend at Cahawba House for breakfast or lunch. There’s plenty more pimento cheese served on a biscuit or a sandwich here. The Rosa Parks Museum downtown on the campus of Troy University is a great place to start.
Learn about the life of Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and have an immersive experience of Parks’ arrest via a 1955 Montgomery city bus. Located at the site where Parks was arrested, the museum also contains her original fingerprint arrest record and a restored 1955 station wagon used to transport protesters in a secret carpooling system.
From there, it’s a short walk to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his first, full-time role as pastor and led his congregation during the bus boycott. The church is not currently open for tours, but you can climb the steps out front or hire Wanda Howard Battle as your tour guide. She offers on-site historical tours, bus tours and historic civil rights tours in Montgomery. She’ll even personally sing a “song of freedom” on each tour.
On the street outside the church, you can literally walk in the footsteps of the marchers from Selma to Montgomery. Look up and you’ll see the Alabama State Capitol, where 25,000 people gathered on the steps to hear Dr. King’s famous speech, “How Long, Not Long.” Close your eyes, and you just might be able to hear the crowd that day. Around the corner is the Civil Rights Memorial, designed by Maya Lin, who found inspiration in this quote from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Take a break for lunch in Old Cloverdale at Filet & Vine, where you can get a sandwich (craving more pimento cheese?) or plate lunch plus a really nice bottle of wine at the adjoining bottle shop. Sit down in the deli and eavesdrop on the table next to you. You just might hear some old Montgomery gossip.
After lunch is Montgomery’s piece de resistance in the civil rights movement: the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and The Legacy Museum. The first memorial of its kind to recognize the thousands of lynchings that occurred across the U.S., the site features 800, six-foot monuments and a walking path where you can contemplate the terror of the practice of lynching and be inspired to take action against racial terror today. From there, you can take a bus to the The Legacy Museum downtown, located on the former site of one of the most prominent slave auctions in the country.
Montgomery was the capital of the domestic slave trade in Alabama, and racial inequality continued long after the Civil War. Through sights and sounds, visitors to The Legacy Museum can experience what it would have been like for a slave to be imprisoned and waiting for auction and also hear from those wrongly incarcerated today. The museum contains more data on racial lynchings than anywhere else and has a wall of jars of soil to memorialize those who experienced that fate.
The memorial and museum are projects of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), founded in 1989 by Bryan Stevenson. EJI is committed to changing the narrative about race in America and opened these spaces in 2018 as part of a national effort to create new spaces, markers and memorials that address the legacy of slavery, lynching and racial segregation.
The EJI sites are heavy, so you may want to relax back at the Scott or Zelda suite or take a walk around Old Cloverdale before dinner. (There’s a historical marker for Rev. Robert S. and Jean Graetz, who were advocates for civil rights, just down the street.) Tours of the Fitzgerald Museum are available Thursday through Sunday from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and Wednesdays by appointment. You can even walk to dinner in the neighborhood at Vintage Year, which has an upscale yet friendly vibe that Zelda and Scott would have loved. Oysters on the half shell, fried octopus, Seafood Risotto, and Duck Pappardelle Pasta are just some of the dishes you’ll find on the menu. Cocktails include the Alabama Sazerac, MGM Gimlet and Cool Cat Lemonade, or you can just order a glass of Prosecco to go with the oysters.
Raid the bookshelf at the top of the stairs at the Fitzgerald Museum for some bedtime reading material and then stop to pick up coffee and a pastry at Cafe Louisa in the morning before heading out. We suggest continuing your civil rights tour in Selma (about an hour’s drive from Montgomery) and will have a story about that and road tripping through Alabama’s Black Belt coming up soon.
For more on Montgomery’s literary history, pick up the new book Stepping Out with Scott and Zelda: Touring the Fitzgeralds’ Montgomery from New South Books.
Thanks to Alabama Black Belt Adventures and the Montgomery CVB for hosting me on the trip over the summer!