It may sometimes seem like ancient history, but the Civil Rights Movement that rocked the nation occurred during our and our parents’ lifetimes. To make sure the struggle isn’t forgotten, glossed over or minimized, efforts have been made recently to shine a spotlight on the stories of the people and places that brought about incredible changes. The fight for human dignity and rights continues to play out today and it is important that the work done and sacrifices made are not lost.
In an effort to make this vital and poignant history accessible to the public, over 100 museums, courthouses, churches and other places significant to the movement have been documented and opened to visitors. Created under the auspices of the National Park Service, the U.S. Civil Rights Trail stretches across much of the American South and north all the way into Kansas and Washington D.C., commemorating important sites of both horror and bravery. While each stop is important, some of them are definitely must-see destinations.
Here are the best stops on the Civil Rights Trail:
National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis
The National Civil Rights Museum is full of more than two hundred artifacts that tell the story from the days of slavery all the way through the events that happened during the 20th century. One of the more popular exhibits focuses on Martin Luther King Jr., chronicling his time in this city, especially his last days. The last stop in this museum are the rooms where Martin Luther King Jr. spent his final hours as well as the balcony where he was killed.
The King Center in Atlanta
The King Center opened in 1968 after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death and is currently run by his children. Inside the center, visitors can see many of Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers and photographs, as well as displays featuring other proponents of non-violent protest, including Rosa Parks and Mohandas K. Gandhi. The center is located in Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, which also includes King’s boyhood home, the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the “I Have a Dream” World Peace Garden. The Rev. and Mrs. King are buried on the grounds.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham
With a mission of education, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is a modern interpretive museum, research center and gallery. This museum has numerous fascinating exhibits that include a replica of the Freedom Riders bus and the jail cell door that Martin Luther King Jr. sat behind as he sat in the Birmingham Jail writing his infamous Letter from Birmingham Jail. The BCRI is located in Birmingham’s Civil Rights District, which allows visitors to further explore the history of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.
Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail
This trail is fifty-four miles long and people can drive along it as they follow in the footsteps of the activists who marched in support of voter’s rights for African Americans. It took three attempts before the protesters were able to complete the journey from Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church to the state capitol in Montgomery. Your route will take you across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday beatings by law enforcement which cut short the first try. Under federal court protection, a group numbering 25,000 completed the March 21st through the 25th, 1965. Only a fraction of the protesters were allowed to enter Montgomery and attempt to deliver a petition to the governor. Four died in the demonstrations and many more were injured.
National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma
Located at the foot of the Edward Pettus Bridge, the National Voting Rights Museum is dedicated to chronicling the fight for voter rights. This museum holds a wealth of information about the voting rights campaign including how approximately seven thousand newly registered African Americans voted against the sheriff who participated in the Bloody Sunday beatings.
Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery
The story of Rosa Parks, known as the “Mother of the Movement,” will live on forever inside this museum located on the grounds of Troy University. Constructed at the site where she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat at the front of the bus, there are markers in place where she boarded the bus and where she was arrested, so visitors can stand in those spots to relive how she must have felt. The highlight of this museum is the bus that has been completely restored.
William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans
One little six-year-old girl, Ruby Bridges, wanted to change the world in 1960 when she became the first African American student to attend an all-white student school. Despite death threats, retaliation against her family, having white families pull their children from the school, and facing all but one teacher refusing to teach her, she persisted. A statue of Ruby can be found in the courtyard now and visitors can see classroom number 2306, which has been restored to look as it did when she attended the school.
Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner
The Emmett Till Interpretive Center is within the courthouse where Emmett Till’s murder trial took place. He was a fourteen-year-old boy who was kidnapped, killed, and his body mutilated after a woman claimed that he offended her in her family’s grocery store. His murder was brutal and indefensible, yet his killers were found not guilty. A short time later, they admitted their guilt and even sold their story to a magazine, but double jeopardy protected them from the law. Till’s death brought outrage throughout the country and helped spur the civil rights movement.
Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC
The March on Washington was held on August 28, 1963 and that is when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. There were at least two hundred and fifty thousand people there supporting him in his quest for freedom. Visitors can stand at the top of the stairs to imagine what Martin Luther King Jr. might have seen and felt as he was delivering his speech.
National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC
This is the newest of all the Smithsonian Museums and it is completely dedicated to the history of African Americans. There are more than thirty-six thousand artifacts on display within the exhibits. Since the museum has only been open since 2016, and the fact that it is so popular, every visitor must obtain a free ticket for their visit or they will not be allowed to enter.
While you may not choose to plan an entire road trip around the trail, taking a weekend drive or adding some of these important cultural and historical sites to your trip will be both inspiring and enlightening.