One of the most significant sites in America's long, bloody, and tumultuous struggle with civil rights, Alabama doesn't sweep its role in this piece of history under the rug. Instead, it acknowledges its part, lauds the heroes, and honors the dead of that internal war of race, rights, and human decency. For anyone who needs to be reminded that ordinary people can do extraordinary things, standing at the pulpit of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached his messages of equality through peaceful means, or entering the Rosa Parks Museum located on the site where she was arrested for not moving to the back of the bus -- both in the state's capitol of Montgomery -- is enough to stir the most disenfranchised or cynical into a state of heartened hope.
It wouldn't be a stretch to say that much of Alabama's troubled past with race relations can be traced to its refusal to give up slavery and subsequent alignment with the Confederate States of America in 1861. Slaves labored in the cotton fields of Alabama's plantations, generating a great source of wealth for the 22nd state of the Union (on territory that was initially claimed by the Spanish as part of Florida) and making them less than willing to comply with President Abraham Lincoln's plan to abolish the practice of keeping human beings as property. By 1864, the state fell to the might of Federalist fighters, giving birth to the famous quote, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" hollered by Union Admiral David Farragut while storming Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines by ship in Mobile Bay. Today, you can tour Alabama's preserved Civil War sites, like Mobile's Fort Morgan (tel. 251/540-5257), the Italianate First White House of the Confederacy in Montgomery (tel. 334/242-1861), and an antebellum graveyard in Albertville (tel. 800/878-3821); and you can check out a re-enactment of the Battle of Mobile Bay at Fort Gaines in early August (tel. 251/861-6992).
If Civil War history isn't your bag, you can visit the hometowns of Alabama's heroes of page and progress, like Truman Capote, Harper Lee, and Helen Keller. There's a lot of beauty to behold, too, not the least of which are the white-sand beaches framing Mobile Bay, which spills into the Gulf of Mexico. You may find yourself humming "Sweet Home Alabama" regardless of whether you've ever been a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd.