Enjoy history, music and rocket science in America’s Deep South

EMMA BONNER beams with pride as she watches her baby granddaughter play.

The 71-year-old sits elegantly in her Sunday best, the very picture of a doting gran.

 Bella met some beautiful people of the South who are rich with their stories about the civil rights movement
Bella met some beautiful people of the South who are rich with their stories about the civil rights movement

But dismiss her at your peril — because Emma helped change the world.

In May 1963, she marched through Birmingham, Alabama, with Martin Luther King to fight for black rights in America’s Deep South.

Then just 15, Emma was menaced by police dogs and blasted with water cannon so strong they could strip bark from trees — their jets slamming teenagers over car roofs and down the city streets.

She spent her 16th birthday under arrest and locked in a barn usually reserved for cattle.

 Alabama is remembered for the bombing of the church in Birmingham where 4 young girls were killed
Alabama is remembered for the bombing of the church in Birmingham where 4 young girls were killed
Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore arrives on horseback to vote in Alabama election

Emma said: “They wanted us to feel like animals.”

But the marchers’ stand helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Act a year later, banning discrimination against black people in America.

That law led to the Fair Housing Act, passed 50 years ago this month, and a new tourist trail traces the history of the civil rights struggle across Alabama.

The Yellowhammer State is home to nearly five million people but few British tourists currently make it here.

 Alabama offers its visitors a city tour that includes the eatery's which will give you a taste of what the South has to offer
Alabama offers its visitors a city tour that includes the eatery’s which will give you a taste of what the South has to offer

A new generation of ’Bamers is working hard to show how far the state has come. Our tour begins in Birmingham with a stop at the Civil Rights Institute and 16th Street Baptist Church next door.

Four girls were killed when the church was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963.

Today it stands proudly rebuilt, with a touching memorial, reinforced stained glass . . . and walls 3ft thick.

It is a symbol of the unshakeable spirit of Alabama’s “foot soldiers”. There is standing room only here for the roof-raising Sunday services — and tourists are welcome.

 Dr Martin Luther King who headed the civil right movement in Alabama and across the US
Dr Martin Luther King who headed the civil right movement in Alabama and across the US

Across town, we meet Emma for lunch at Niki’s West, a cafeteria-style diner where you can get “meat and three”. That means steak, chicken or fish and three side dishes for under a tenner.

There is a growing foodie scene in the city, where we stayed at the Westin hotel. You are spoilt for choice with restaurants.

George Clooney was dining at Highlands Bar & Grill the night we were there and it is not hard to see why.

The food here is epic, from tender steaks to traditional Southern-baked grits with prosciutto and mushrooms.

 Bella had time to stop for food and recommends grabbing a bit at Champy's for their buttermilk chicken and fried green tomatoes
Bella had time to stop for food and recommends grabbing a bit at Champy’s for their buttermilk chicken and fried green tomatoes

No fewer than 12 schools of medicine in the city have helped foster a craft beer explosion.

We laughed ourselves silly on a tandem party-bike tour after sampling Trim Tab Brewing’s award-winning Paradise Now fruit beer.

The sounds of the South poured from every bar and diner we passed as we pedalled for all our worth.

A museum just outside Muscle Shoals, two hours away, pays tribute to the powerful voices born in the state — Percy Sledge, Nat King Cole, Tammy Wynette and Hank Williams, to name just a few.

 FAME studios started by the late Rick Hall has recorded the sounds of music R&B giants like Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett
FAME studios started by the late Rick Hall has recorded the sounds of music R&B giants like Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett

Perched on the banks of the Tennessee River is Muscle Shoals itself, a tiny town that looms large in American music history and where we based ourselves at the Marriott Shoals Hotel.

Visionary producer Rick Hall, who died in January, started FAME Studios on a quiet side-street in the Sixties and it quickly became a home for soul, R&B and country talent.

Wilson Pickett and Sledge, a hospital orderly from nearby Leighton, found their voices here.

Aretha Franklin recorded her first No1 hit, I Never Loved A Man, at FAME but fled when Rick began trading punches with her husband.

 It's rumoured that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones finished Wild Horses in a rival studio set up the Swampers 
It’s rumoured that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones finished Wild Horses in a rival studio set up the Swampers 

Go: Alabama

GETTING/STAYING THERE: Ten nights’ room-only in 4 star accommodation.

Costs from £1,350pp based on two sharingincluding car hire, Virgin Atlantic return flights from Heathrow in October and transfers in Atlanta.

See americaasyoulikeit.com or call 020 8742 8299.

OUT & ABOUT: For more information on Alabama, see alabama.travel.

Its session musicians, the Swampers, set up a rival studio a few blocks away in 1969 and you can tour both by appointment.

Here, your hair will stand up on end. Neither site has changed a lick (you can still see the Rolling Stones’ fag burns on the couch) and the access given to fans is extraordinary.

Forget queuing for hours for a whistlestop dash of Graceland.

Here you can play the piano where Paul Simon recorded Kodachrome or sit in the loo where Keith Richards finished Wild Horses.

 Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was once used to store coffins but saw big name artists like Rod Stewart, Cher and Bob Seger
Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was once used to store coffins but saw big name artists like Rod Stewart, Cher and Bob Seger

The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio is a tiny box of a building once used to store coffins, yet Rod Stewart, Bob Seger and Cher have all piled in to record.

Grown men have been known to cry on the spot where the Stones laid down Brown Sugar.

If you can tear yourself away, head to Champy’s for some sinful buttermilk-fried chicken, fried green tomatoes and hot tamales.

Or dine in the 360 Grille at the Marriott Shoals, a revolving restaurant with breathtaking views of the Tennessee River.

 Alabama’s biggest state park has 3,000 acres of forests, rivers and canyons with breathtaking views
Alabama’s biggest state park has 3,000 acres of forests, rivers and canyons with breathtaking views

Less than 150 miles away, the Little River has its own impressive show at the gorgeous DeSoto Falls.

Alabama’s biggest state park has 3,000 acres of forests, rivers and canyons and makes a great stop-off for a weekend of hiking and camping.

While you are there, grab a bargain at Unclaimed Baggage.

This legendary secondhand store sells lost luggage (airlines wait 90 days to sell cases to them) for next to nowt.

 No southern experience is complete without the big band jamboree in the street that captures the true spirit of the south
No southern experience is complete without the big band jamboree in the street that captures the true spirit of the south

You can pick up a MacBook for £100 and designer handbags for a fraction of that.

The only rule is No Pets Allowed, a disappointment to the man ejected in front of us for the live parrot on his shoulder.

We then travelled to Huntsville, staying at the Marriott SpringHill Suites.

 The US space and rocket centre in Huntsville, Alabama where you can experience a ride in a G4 simulator
The US space and rocket centre in Huntsville, Alabama where you can experience a ride in a G4 simulator

It was at the US Space & Rocket Center that Nasa scientists developed the rockets that put Americans on the moon.

We gawped at a vast Apollo Saturn V rocket and a priceless fragment of moon rock.

There was just time for a ride in a brain-melting G4 simulator before heading back down to Earth — a welcome return to Sweet Home Alabama.

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