08/02/2013 07:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Following Dr. King's Footsteps in Alabama, An Emotional Journey

Capitol Building in Mongomery, Alabama

As the capital of Alabama, and former capital of The Confederate States of America, Montgomery is steeped in history, but for people of our generation its recent history is more transformational. This is the city where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his civil rights work.

In 1954 Dr. King, at only twenty-five years old, came to Mongomery to become pastor of The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. A year later the young pastor found himself in the center of The Montgomery Bus Boycott, considered the beginning of the modern civil rights movement, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus.

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

Our knowledge of these events was sketchy at best, so we decided to seek out some of the sites of these historic developments. The Rosa Parks Library and Museum on the Troy University campus was our first stop. After chatting with a few of the students who staff the museum, we headed inside to the focal point of the presentation, a recreation of the bus Mrs. Parks was riding.

We entered a darkened room they call the Cleveland Avenue Time Machine, climbed aboard, and were taken for a ride through the years from Jim Crow in the 1800s to the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and 1956. The Rosa Parks incident triggered the boycott, which began as a one-day event but ended up lasting over a year. Much of the planning and coordinating took place in the basement of Dr. King's Dexter Avenue Church, and his involvement led not only to his arrest, but a bombing at his house.

Still he remained steadfast, and by the time the boycott was settled with the United States District Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle, he was an established leader of the civil rights movement and racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses had ended.

The success of the boycott led to the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, with Dr. King as president, and more efforts to end segregation and secure voting rights. The stories of those struggles are documented at The Southern Poverty Law Center and The Civil Rights Memorial Center.

The Memorial captured our attention as we walked from the church toward The Center. The smooth granite circular slab is engraved around the outside edge with the names of people killed in the struggle for equal rights. Water washes over the stone as a constant reminder of Dr. King's words, "We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

The Memorial was created by Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin, who envisioned the plaza as "a contemplative area, a place to remember the Civil Rights Movement, to honor those killed during the struggle, to appreciate how far the country has come in its quest for equality, and to consider how far it has to go."

For Dr. King the quest led to Birmingham, and so we followed his trail to The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, an affiliate of the Smithsonian. Set up as a walking journey, multimedia exhibits took us through the turbulent decades of the fifties and sixties while the powerful Oral History Project told us the stories from the actual participants, in their own voices.

Early in 1963 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a campaign against segregation with the hopes of exposing the city's continued injustices using nonviolent confrontations. During those protests the Birmingham Police Department used high-pressure hoses and dogs against the protesters.

We found those moments captured in powerful statues by sculptor James Drake at the Kelly Ingram Park Freedom Walk. The park, which served as a staging ground for many of the demonstrations, is just across the street from the Institute and The 16th Street Baptist Church. Drake's works, such as Police and Dog Attack, and Firehosing of Demonstrators, put us right in the middle of each situation.

It was while Dr. King was jailed during these protests that he wrote his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" advocating nonviolent civil disobedience, and by the end of the Birmingham campaign he was recognized as the leader of the civil rights movement. Later that summer he led the march on Washington to give his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech.

As the movement was making real progress in 1963, the worst days in Birmingham were still to come. On a September Sunday morning four Klansman planted a bomb in the basement of The 16th Street Baptist Church and set it to go off during a youth meeting at the morning services. Four young girls were killed in the blast, but only one of the perpetrators was arrested. He paid a small fine for illegal possession of dynamite. No one else was arrested, tried or convicted for the murders until many years later.

Dr. King spoke to the more than eight thousand mourners of all races attending the funeral service, and the tragedy was instrumental in turning public opinion for the civil rights cause, ultimately leading to President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Equal rights was the law of the land but the struggle was not over. Early in 1965, Selma, Alabama became the focal point for the next battle, voting rights. Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to Selma hoping that a major event would help lead to national voting rights legislation in the same way that the Birmingham campaign helped to bring about passage of the Civil Rights Act. They planned a march from Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church to the capitol building in Montgomery.

Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church

We entered Selma by crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, scene of Bloody Sunday, and proceeded on to the church. This took us directly along the route taken on Sunday March 7,1965 by the six hundred people who were beaten and gassed as they tried to cross the bridge in their first attempt to march on Montgomery. Two days later Dr. King led another march, this time only planning to go as far as the bridge, to prove the point that they had the legal right to do so on the authority of a Federal District Court Judge.

The third march left Selma on March 16th with just over three thousand people. They walked about ten miles a day, sleeping in fields along the way, until reaching Montgomery on the 24th. By the time they arrived at the capitol building the group had grown to twenty-five thousand.

By retracing the path of the marchers we had returned full circle to the beginnings of Dr. Martin Luther King's remarkable achievements. Along the way we came to understand the importance of bringing attention to these events, after being disconcerted by how little we knew of them before. Our eyes were opened, not only to how much has been accomplished, but how much is yet to be.

David & Veronica,