Bravery. Tragedy. Heroism.
Those three words come to mind when I think about the Civil Rights Movement. And if you think the challenges live only in the past, just turn on your TV. Any local or national news show will do. Unfortunately, signs of hate are not just on display at the local Civil Rights Museum – they exist even now.
Things are better…but we still have a long way to go. And that’s why it is so important to me to honor and cherish the efforts of the past. The hate has to stop.
I was thrilled to learn at this year’s Travel South USA conference about the newly announced US Civil Rights Trail. It spans 15 states and includes 100 churches, courthouses, schools, museums and other landmarks where activists challenged segregation in the 1950s and 1960s to advance social justice.
You can visit their website for the complete list of trail stops, or click here to see a map of the cities hosting these landmarks. Below, we’ve highlighted some of the stops along this regional Civil Rights Trail (along with a few state-specific stops): the brave, the tragic, and the heroic.
National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Ga. CCHR masters the Civil Rights story with beautiful, raw exhibits that challenge us to better ourselves. The most talked about exhibit is Lessons From the Lunch Counter. Guests sit down at the counter, close their eyes and put on headphones to be transported back to a Woolworth lunch counter as a participant in a sit-in. The 1960 peaceful sit-down of these four North Carolina college students was a brave action, indeed.
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, Montgomery, Al. This church carries a varied history – from slave trader’s pen to Martin Luther King, Jr’s first parsonage. Most notably, this is where King encouraged the brave men and women of the town to remain vigilant for 13 months during the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, which started with Rosa Parks and ended with a Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional.
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, Little Rock, Ar. Going to high school is hard enough. But the nine African-American students that entered the formerly all-white Central High School to test the Brown v. Board of Education ruling – they were among the bravest of all. These were kids!
Robert Russa Moton Museum, Farmville, Va. Formerly Moton High School, this is known as the birthplace of student involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. As early as 1951, 16 year old Barbara Johns led a student strike for equal education. Her courageous efforts encouraged the gathering of over 75% of the plaintiffs called in Brown vs Board of Education…each a brave soul for the efforts toward desegregated schools.
Rosa Parks Museum, Montgomery, Al. Rosa Parks was not a “tired woman determined to rest her laurels on a cushy bus seat.” She was a brave civil rights icon with a pre-determined mission. Witness Rosa Parks’ arrest, sit on a 1955 Montgomery public bus, and feel the impact she made across the country.
Lyceum at Oxford University, Oxford, Ms. I’ve personally seen one of the remaining bullet holes in the door here – a reminder of the battle that broke out over the enrollment of James Meredith, the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi. Some historians say the integration of Ole Miss was the last battle of the Civil War. A statue of James Meredith also stands at the site where the riots once raged.
National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tn. Dr. King was the face of the Civil Rights Movement, and his assassination is arguably the most tragic, albeit expected. He was in town to support black sanitation workers’ demands for fair wages, and was fatally shot on the second story balcony just outside his room. You’ll find a great deal of exhibits here, as well as the preserved hotel. It is the most visited civil rights museum in America.
16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Al. As late as 1963, four young black girls tragically lost their lives when the church was bombed by the KKK. This was the third bombing in 11 days, protesting the integration of schools. This event roused the federal government to take action on civil rights legislation -leading to the passage of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Al. Tragically, this was the site of the brutal Bloody Sunday beatings of civil rights marchers during the first march for voting rights in 1965. Unstopped, the march resumes two weeks later under protection through the Federal District Court.
Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, Greenwood, MS. Only ruins and an historical marker offer reminders of the tragedy that occurred here in 1955. A white woman working at the Market claims that a 14-year old black boy from Chicago, Emmett Till, flirted with her. Four days later, the woman’s husband and brother stripped Till of his clothes, beat and mutilated him, and then threw his body, tied to the cotton-gin fan, into the Tallahatchie River. The men were found not-guilty, and the woman later recanted her testimony about Till’s flirtatious behavior. The trial was seen as a catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycotts.
Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, Atlanta, Ga. Celebrate Dr. King’s heroic life at the National Park and the neighboring King Center. See Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached and visit his birth home. The King Center includes the No. 6 Fire Station where Dr. King played as a young boy. It was also one of the first fire stations to desegregate. We also adore the free Junior Ranger Activity booklets.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham, Al. The 58,000 square feet of this behemoth includes exhibits, galleries and more. I love that it depicts the events of this time in history chronologically, which can create a clearer picture in our minds of how each event relates to the next.
Why do I list it under “Heroes?” Near the end of the timeline, the larger galleries open up to windows overlooking Kelly Ingram Park. This was where the Children’s Crusade began their march in 1963. The children were pressure washed with fire hoses, body slammed with batons, and chased by dogs – not by the KKK but by the police. These children were heroes.
Medgar Evers Home Museum, Jackson, Ms. Evers was assassinated in his home in 1963, and that home is now a landmark. Medgar Evers was awarded the 1963 NAACP Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement by an African-American.
International Civil Rights Center & Museum, Greensboro, NC. Do you recall the story about the Woolworth’s lunch counter in the first listing? This museum celebrates those sit-ins and the heroic men that changed the course of history. The building formerly housed the Woolworths, and the original “whites only” lunch counter and seats are preserved here.
Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Jackson, Ms. While this museum covers the story of equal rights for blacks well before the 1950/1960 movement, it pays particular attention to the murders of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till. But, for this article, we’re heading to Gallery 5, A Tremor in the Iceberg, which celebrates the heroes we call Freedom Riders.
“They were heroes who rode buses and trains in the South to break the back of segregation”, said Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson to CBS. He is among the last of the surviving original Freedom Riders – he would know.
In addition to the US Civil Rights Trail, many states have Civil Rights Trails with even more landmarks, museums and galleries. Find them here:
More Places to Learn About the African American Experience
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Disclosure: Thank you to Mississippi and Travel South USA for hosting me at a conference to learn more about the US Civil Rights Trail. Opinions here are all my own. Always.