In honor of me having achieved my goal of visiting all 50 US States, each day for the next 50 days, I will post a picture of somewhere I have visited in each state and write a paragraph or two about my experience. There is so much to see in every one of them, so I am just selecting one of my best memories.
I’m in the heart of Dixie, Dixie’s in the heart of me
And someday when I make it, when love finds a way
Somewhere high on lookout mountain, I’ll just smile with pride and say that my
While Alabama’s neighbor to the west, Mississippi can lay claim as the “birthplace of Blues” and their northern Tennessee can proclaim themselves the “birthplace of Country Music” both were incubated and nurtured in Alabama. Alabama is the home state of Hank Williams and the Muscle Shoals Studio, and these respective musical genres would be lost without them.
Aside from being pivotal in the evolution of American Music, Alabama is also the epicenter of the American Civil rights movement. The bus strikes in Montgomery ignited by Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat to a white person is considered the opening salvo in the modern struggle for equality among African-Americans. The riot in Selma and the bombing of a black church by the KKK in Birmingham which killed four young girls helped turn the tide of popular opinion and began the slow demise of the old Jim Crow South.
Appreciating the struggles Alabama has made, and its march toward a more equitable society is a certainly a large part of the state’s history. But it is just an element in the state’s modern history. When you visit Birmingham, I strongly encourage you to visit the Civil Rights District and discover for yourself the legacy and the struggle of the Blacks in Alabama and the South in general. I think it is important to stress that racism and an unfortunate history of violence is not exclusively a Southern problem. Every region of the United States and the world have had difficulties accepting a minority population as equals. So while it is important to mention some of the state’s turbulent past, I also want to stress that most whites in the South are decent, honorable people maligned by the actions of a few.
Which brings us to probably the most well-known rebuttal song in music history. In 1970 Canadian Neil Young wrote a song called “Southern Man.” The song was a strong indictment of racism and the Jim Crow period and portrayed Southerners in a way many in the region felt was heavy-handed especially for someone not from the region themselves. What many considered even worse was another song by young called “Alabama” that actually said Alabamans were “sitting in white robes, (a reference to the KKK) playin the Banjo” Ouch. I like Neil Young very much and admire his songwriting prowess (generally speaking), but two wrongs don’t make a right.
Even though they weren’t from Alabama (but nearby Jacksonville, Florida) the band Lynerd Skynerd wrote one of rock’s best-remembered songs “Sweet Home, Alabama” as a direct response to Young’s songs. It’s the only song I know of that directly calls out Neil Young by name.
“Well I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well I heard ole Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A southern man doesn’t need him around anyhow.”
Not the perfect rebuttal, as the song never refutes Young’s stereotype. Much worse the song says the people of Alabama “Love the governor” a reference to George Wallace who was a rabid segregationist. Still despite the shortcomings, “Sweet Home Alabama” has become a song of Southern Pride and in truth is a pretty good song to rock out on.
Speaking of Rocking out, northern Alabama has one of the prominent recording studios in the world. Muscle Shoals is world renown for its Blues session players (known affectionately as ‘The Swampers’ ) The studio has recorded albums from The Rolling Stones, U2, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Boz Scaggs, Elton John, and The Black Keys among many others. The studio offers tours, and you can peruse their massive wall of Gold and platinum albums. Even better get the tour guide to regale you with fantastic tales of the many eccentric artists who recorded there.
Also in Northern Alabama is Huntsville home of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center’s Space Camp. Every summer high school students get to play astronaut for a week and learn how to operate landing vehicles and the space shuttle. They can also take part in a simulated Space Walk. They even have Space Camp for adults. The Adult Camp has no age restrictions, so if you ever wanted to be an Astronaut when you grew up, you still have a chance to play out your fantasy.
Birmingham is Alabama’s largest city and has several notable places worth visiting. Probably the most important is the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum. The museum stands as a stark reminder of the region’s disturbing past. The museum will leave you horrified and hopeful While that may sound like a downer, the upside is you are able to take hope in the positive changes that have occurred and the knowledge that equality is a work in progress.
While you are in the area, you should also visit the 16th Street Baptist Church. The church was the sight of a KKK orchestrated bombing that killed four small girls who were playing in the basement at the time. The attack horrified the nation and solidified public opinion against the Klan even in the south. More than anything else the bombing is credited with fomenting their decline of the KKK and driving them back underground.
Across the street is a beautiful statue called “Four Spirits” which depicts the four children who were killed. The artist went to great lengths to authentically capture their appearance. A couple of the girls are shown playing, one is releasing six doves, (representing the four girls and two young boys who were shot by Klan members elsewhere the same day.) another girl is shown reading a book containing the poem “The Stolen Child” by W. B. Yeats. The last girl is kneeling by a sign that says “The Love that forgives” which was the sermon planned the day the bomb went off. I have to admit, the sculpture brought tears to my eyes. Nothing can bring those children back, but I personally felt the statues go a long way in bringing healing and closure to this horrific event.
The state capital of Montgomery is the home of Hank Williams considered by many to be Father of Country Music. Much like Patsy Cline who also died very young, Williams impact on the art form was long lasting and indelible especially considering how brief his time was. Montgomery was also the location where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white patron and was arrested. Her arrest led to a boycott of the city’s bus lines by black customers. This boycott was ultimately successful and is considered the first shot of the Civil rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.
Near Montgomery is the city of Selma. The town is the sight of a brutal beating of peaceful Civil rights marchers who were on their way to Montgomery. As the crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge the marchers were attacked by National Guardsmen, Police and private citizens with bats, nightsticks, and rocks. Governor George Wallace refused to provide protection for the marchers, and ultimately President Lyndon Johnson sent troops to provide cover for the marchers, and they were finally able to march to Montgomery without further violence. Today, the bridge stands as a symbol for a threshold for those seeking equal treatment under the law.
Probably my favorite area of Alabama is Mobile Bay. This 400 square mile inlet to the Gulf of Mexico is protected by barrier islands and is an excellent place for boating and fishing. A friend of mine who lives in the area has a boat and invited me to spend a couple days on the Bay. The bay is large enough you can get in the middle and not see land in any direction. Since the bay is shielded by islands, the water is mostly calm and only has an average depth of 10 feet. We anchored up and spent a couple days fishing and swimming. Also right out of mobile is the USS Alabama a massive decommissioned battleship that is open to tourists. My mother is from Pensacola, Florida and whenever we would drive from New Orleans to visit we would drive by Mobile and tour the ship.
Alabama will surprise you if you let it. They are looking forward and trying to heal. Yes, there are bad actors. But every state has them. Most of Alabamans of all races are warm and welcoming. You’ll find southern hospitality is not just an expression, but a way of life in this sweet home Alabama.