Sweet roam Alabama: a US RV trip

Take to the open road in America’s Deep South, ahead of next year’s 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act


The Edmund Pettus Bridge is a bridge that carries U.S. Route 80 across the Alabama River in Selma, Alabama. Built in 1940, it is named for Edmund Winston Pettus, a former Confederate brigadier general and U.S. Senator from Alabama. The bridge is a steel through arch bridge with a central span of 250 feet (76 m). It is famous as the site of the conflict of Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, when armed officers attacked peaceful civil rights demonstrators attempting to march to the state capital of Montgomery. The bridge was declared a National Historic Landmark on March 11, 2013.[1]

Walking over the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, I felt my breath catch a little. On this spot in March 1965, 600 civil rights protesters attempted to cross the Alabama River and walk to Montgomery for the right to vote unencumbered.

On this spot, they instead met a wall of law enforcement who had been given the go-ahead to stop them — using whatever force necessary. Men, women and teenagers were beaten with nightsticks in an ambush that is now known as “Bloody Sunday”.

Footage of the peaceful marchers being attacked by troopers on horseback shocked the nation and, indeed, the world, causing an outcry that galvanised the civil rights movement’s support.

Thousands, including many Jews, were inspired to travel cross-country to join Martin Luther King Jr and the protesters, leaving President Lyndon Johnson little choice but to allow the march to eventually take place, and confirm legislation that would protect the voting rights of all citizens.

When you stand where they did, you are reminded of the incredible power of place. You are instantly connected to what happened that day, separated only by time. This is clearly a motivation for the scores who travel to this small city on the anniversary each year in pilgrimage to the movement.

Six decades on from that violent day, there remains a debate over the bridge’s name. The very structure the protesters were crossing was named after a Confederate General and rumoured grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

Some now want his name to be stripped from it, while others think it should stand as a reminder of a dark past. My guide Keya simply said, “I like the idea of him spinning in his grave at what the bridge has come to represent.”

The protests and changes of the mid-20th century may be what put Selma on the map, but this is a city that is seeking to reinvent itself. The main avenue of Broad Street has retained almost all of its original buildings, leaving a mix of late 1800s, Art Deco and 1950s modernist architecture to enjoy.

Just behind this street you will also find art centres, community spaces, coffee shops, museums and new hotels, giving Selma a vibrant buzz. The city is going through a renaissance, and it will be exciting to see what the future holds.

Selma was just one of our stops on a ten-day RV road trip around Alabama, and as my husband and I drove across the bridge heading south, we found ourselves discussing everything we had learned that day.

Looking up at the towering iron arches was a poignant reminder that not that long ago, basic rights were not afforded to millions based entirely on their colour — making you question how much has changed in the past 60 years, and how much further we still have left to go.

Driving between stops gave us the space to process everything we had seen, and our high position above the road gave us the perfect vantage point to see every inch of the state. Travelling by RV, or recreational vehicle, proved to be the ideal way to navigate Alabama’s complex history.

The state has often found itself at the centre of some of America’s darkest periods, whether that be slavery, the civil war, or the Jim Crow era of segregation in the South.

The Civil Rights Trail, which takes visitors from the city of Scottsboro in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains down to Monroeville in the south, lets you follow in the footsteps of figures like Martin Luther King Jr, and is a powerful way to immerse yourself in the history.

We passed through the busy city of Birmingham, home to many of the most famous incidents of this period, including the shocking bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in 1963 which took the lives of four African American girls.

This national tragedy became a turning point for the movement, sparking the federal government to take action on the inequalities of the South. Now, across from the church itself, lies Kelly Ingram Park, dedicated to those involved in the fight for justice, and featuring a monument to the girls.

Our next stop was the state capital of Montgomery, where the Selma march ended and where Martin Luther King spoke on the steps of the capitol building. It’s also, and perhaps most famously, where Rosa Parks performed her own act of protest on her way home one evening, refusing to give up her bus seat for a white passenger.

Perhaps every primary school in the UK teaches children about the Bus Boycott of 1955, but we learned even more about this important moment in time through an engaging exhibition at the Rosa Parks Museum, located near the spot where she was arrested.

Literature lovers may also be inspired to stop in Monroeville to visit the grave of Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, which may be the most widely read book about race inequality. You can even visit the courthouse where the story’s climax takes place in the movie version starring Gregory Peck.

But there is much more to Alabama than its history, of course, including dramatic and beautiful scenery. In leafy DeSoto State Park, we went wild swimming with turtles in a waterfall, while in Cheaha State Park, we slept at the top of Alabama’s highest mountain, and fished for largemouth bass as Bald Eagles flew overhead in Lake Guntersville State Park.

The climate changes entirely as you drive south, the air getting denser as you pass cotton fields and marshland on the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Here, the white beaches are astonishing, made of a fine, powdery quartzite that has been ground down as it travelled the same journey south that we had just driven. The water is the blue of bubblegum ice-cream, and the Gulf State Park ensures miles of coastline are unspoilt by development.

Elsewhere, Alabama’s small towns such as Oxford, Mentone and Guntersville are full of character and filled with independent stores and innovative restaurants, while there’s vibrant nightlife in cities such as Mobile and Montgomery.

What we enjoyed most on our journey, though, was the people. The hospitality of the South is famous, and we found this stereotype to be entirely true — from the man who went out his way to return my sunglasses when I left them behind after asking for directions, to the people we met in bars and restaurants who desperately wanted to show off everything good about a state that has, perhaps, been living under a shadow.

Alabama has seen some of the nation’s darkest failures play out within its borders, the results of which are still being felt by people of colour today. There’s no getting past the fact that the fight for racial equality is still one of America’s biggest issues. Herein lies the challenge for the state — how do you reconcile a disturbing past, while celebrating everything you have to offer?

For that, I look to the people that I met, of every race and background, who want to create a better world for their children, and who gave me hope that this was in reach. Alabama feels like a state in flux, but always positive that its people can give themselves the future they deserve.

Getting There

An 11-night RV holiday to Alabama with America As You Like It costs from £2,090 per person, based on two sharing, including flights, one night accommodation in Atlanta and ten nights C25 RV rental.

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