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Once a prototype of the slow-to-change South, Alabama now exhibits a modern style and a cultural diversity that may surprise first-time visitors. While there are gracious antebellum mansions and Civil War sites to explore and fields of fluffy cotton and red, pink, and white azaleas to delight the eye, there are 21st-century wonders as well. After all, what other state can boast a space center, the country's only Mercedes-Benz visitors' center, some of the best beaches in the country, and a nationally-renowned Shakespearean theater?
Alabama became a state in 1819 but the first European explorers "discovered" it when the Spanish sailed into Mobile Bay in 1519. The French were the first to establish a permanent settlement, however, in 1711 at Mobile.
Economically dependent on cotton and the slave labor that produced it, Alabama was the fourth Southern state to secede from the Union, in January 1861. The Confederate States of America organized in Montgomery and Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as its president there. Though no significant Civil War land battles were fought in the state, there was an important naval encounter at Mobile Bay in 1864 in which the Union forces prevailed.
The state came into the national spotlight during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The 1955-56 bus boycott in Montgomery, sparked by Rosa Parks' courageous stand against discrimination on public transportation and led by Martin Luther King, Jr., was a seminal event in the movement. The violence-torn marches in Selma and the vicious, cowardly church bombing in Birmingham in which four little girls lost their lives were other key events. Today the state has faced its past and proudly established numerous historic sites, monuments, and museums that honor the role of its African American citizens in the struggle for equality.
Geographically, the state runs the gamut from the Appalachian Mountains in its northeast corner to the white-sand beaches along the Gulf of Mexico in the south. In the northern part of the state, visitors will find a region laced with rivers, lakes, and underground caverns. The north also lays claim to two of the state's most famous citizens, W.C. Handy, the musician/composer known as the "Father of the Blues" and Helen Keller. The homes of both are open to the public year round. The region is dominated by the city of Huntsville with its U.S Space and Rocket Center.
Moving into the central part of the state, visitors will find the bustling city of Birmingham, a major medical center and home to a first-class art museum and the inspiring Civil Rights Institute. To the city's west is Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama and its Crimson Tide football team. The 100-year legacy of the Tide and its most famous coach is honored in the Paul W. "Bear" Bryant Museum.
The state capital of Montgomery, 90 miles south of Birmingham, is a city of compelling historical contrasts. The first White House of the Confederacy and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. launched the bus boycott, are within a city block of each other. There's more civil rights and Civil War history to be found in nearby Selma. The annual spring pilgrimages (public tours) of gracious antebellum homes in Selma, Eufaula, and other Alabama towns also give visitors a glimpse into the South's storied past.
The southernmost part of the state borders Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. Here, the scenery--sandy beaches and moss-draped trees--offers a dramatic change of pace from the rest of the state, as do the Alabama Gulf Coast's primary attractions of sunbathing, swimming, and deep-sea fishing.