Montgomery Through the Eyes of a Southern White Travel Writer

National Memorial for Peace and Justice; Photo by Melinda Crow

I have an enviable job. As a freelance travel writer, I travel the globe writing what amounts to mostly fluff about the places I visit. My brain actually thinks in the format of those annoying “listicle” articles that suck you into spending more screen time than you intended.

I wander the streets of iconic cities looking for those 30 Things You Never Thought to Do in Venice. With few exceptions, I think of myself as a travel encourager.

I’ve also always told myself that I will tell the truth about what I find when I travel.

And the truth is that I was not excited about visiting Montgomery. It was simply not on my list of fun places I wanted to see. But one of the dirty little secrets of travel writers is that when a trip is offered and an editor is interested, we rarely say no.

The first afternoon and evening in town were routine and could have taken place in any one of the fifty state capitals — a drive past the capitol, the colleges, the coffee shops, art houses, and tap rooms, followed by burgers at a downtown street festival. My list of things to do began to take shape.

The morning of our first full day in town began with a visit to the Rosa Parks Museum. It was fascinating and filled with information that I honestly don’t recall learning in school. My personal knowledge of segregation revolves around the desegregation of my elementary school when I was in the fourth grade, and as memorable events go, it fell far short of the excitement of the year because it was also the year in which girls were allowed to wear pants to school for the first time in the history of Amarillo, Texas.

At some point in my years of public education, I was taught the basic history of Rosa Parks’ bus ride and the boycott that followed, but the details presented at the Montgomery museum went far beyond my base of knowledge. It left me feeling both impressed by those who fought for civil rights during those times and guilty at my previous lack of attention to the details.

The remainder of the day was back to fluffy topics and attractions around town, but on my second morning in town, I visited The Legacy Museum.

I found the stories inside that museum to be among the most powerful I have ever encountered. Inside the museum are stories of unspeakable violence against families separated as they were sold into slavery on the very town square where I had enjoyed a hamburger festival two nights before.

The rest of the trip involved layers of learning things I should have already known. At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice I was numbed by the names of lynching victims carved into rusty, coffin-sized monuments hung from the rafters and organized by state and county. I found myself looking for the monuments representing counties where I have lived, fearful of how many names I would find on each.

Sandwiched between those moments of harsh reality were celebrations of life, of battles won. I sang gospel hymns in the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Reverend King once preached. I wandered an impressive art collection at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and ate the comfort foods of the South.

The most important thing I learned in Montgomery, where the contrast between our nation’s darkest moments and some its bravest is graphically displayed, is that bias, whether racial, cultural, gender-based, or political, disappears at the point where knowledge meets empathy.

On the last day of the trip, I found myself struggling to find material for the rest of the assigned article I knew I must write. I snapped pictures of the Montgomery Curb Market and of Hank Williams’ gravesite. I made notes about all the things you might not know you could find in Montgomery. But my real advice to you doesn’t require a list.

Whoever you are, whatever the color of your skin, whatever you think you know about the history of our nation, whatever your preconceived ideas about Montgomery are, set all of that aside and go. Arrive with an open mind and heart.

Eat amazing food. Drink local beer. Take in the sights. Then let the city’s story change you. The places most likely to do that are easy to find — no travel writer required.

Here’s the story I eventually wrote for Newsweek.