The Civil Rights era in the United States was one of the nation’s most transformative times, during which many Americans rose up in mass defiance to claim rights guaranteed them by their constitution, thereby highlighting the inconsistencies of a nation that loudly professed a commitment to freedom while denying that freedom to a significant portion of its population.
February is Black History Month in the United States, a time to reflect on the struggles and accomplishments of black Americans in their pursuit to widen the consciousness of their country and balance the injustices of the system they were born into. This was a long and arduous struggle, which culminated in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. For those wishing to explore this history, here are a few significant sites on the Civil Rights Trail you’ll want to check out.
The Birmingham Campaign, which took place between 1963 and 1964, was one of the most important struggles in the Civil Rights movement. Its primary goal was the desegregation of Birmingham’s downtown merchants. In the summer of 1963 protesters used a variety of nonviolent methods to challenge Jim Crow laws, such as kneel-ins at local churches and sit-ins at lunch counters that only served whites. In response the city of Birmingham obtained an injunction to bar such protests and the authorities responded brutally. Convinced that the order was unconstitutional, protesters defied the injunction and prepared to be arrested. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of those arrested on April 12, 1963. While imprisoned King wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, in which he argued, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
In May the campaign heated up with a decision to train high school students to participate in the demonstrations, resulting in more than 1000 students skipping school on May 2, 1963 to join the protests in what would eventually be called the “Children’s Crusade”. Authorities responded with police dogs and fire hoses and more than six hundred ended up in jail. Later that year one of the most tragic events of the Civil Rights movement took place: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963, in which four young African-American girls were killed.
Imagine yourself in the heart of the civil rights struggle by taking a stroll through Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, where dogs and fire hoses were once used on peaceful marchers. Today it features several sculptures and installations commemorating the Civil Rights movement. You can also explore other sites central to the struggle in the Birmingham Civil Rights District, including the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which features exhibits that chronicle the events of the movement and celebrate the accomplishments of black Americans in Alabama. The Institute also has a replica of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s jail cell. Also worth checking out is the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail, which winds through downtown Birmingham, pointing out significant spots on the 1963 march routes.
Rosa Parks, the “mother of the civil rights movement,” is a symbol for 381-day bus boycott in 1955-1956 that challenged segregation law in Montgomery, Alabama. The law eventually ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was ruled unconstitutional.
Parks moved to Detroit in 1957, but it would take another 44 years for the bus in which she refused to relinquish her seat to a white man to follow her there. You can view this historic vehicle at The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan, a short drive from Detroit. The story of the bus is quite interesting. After the historic incident a man named Roy H. Summerford purchased the 36-seat city bus and parked it in a field, where it ended up neglected, used to store lumber and tools. When Summerford died his daughter inherited the bus and 15 years later put it up for auction on eBay. It eventually ended up in the hands of The Henry Ford museum. The bus was in pretty bad shape, with a missing engine, missing seats, and broken windows, but The Henry Ford museum spent over $300,000 to restore it, along with help from a grant from the Save America’s Treasures program.
Today, visitors can board the restored bus and sit in the seat which Parks refused to vacate. The story of her move to Detroit and her influence on the civil rights movement is also told in the exhibit. Rosa Parks died in 2005, and you can visit Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery to see her final resting place.
Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Memphis in March of 1968 to support a group of sanitation workers who were on strike for fair pay and better working conditions. The campaign was launched after two workers were accidentally killed on the job. King saw their struggle as integral to the Poor People’s Campaign that he was planning. At the Mason Temple on April 3 he gave what would be the final speech of his life, his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon. The next day he was shot while on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel — one of the few integrated hotels in the South at the time.
The motel’s owner preserved King’s room as a memorial and in 1991 part of the property was converted into the National Civil Rights Museum. Through its collections, exhibitions, research and educational programs, the National Civil Rights Museum seeks to help the public understand the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement and its influence on human rights movements around the world. In 2002, the museum expanded to include an exhibit called “Exploring the Legacy”, which explores the events surrounding King’s assassination.
Site of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on the National Mall in 1963, during which an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 demonstrators gathered and Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the American capital is a must for any civil rights tourist.
In the National Museum of American History visitors can see the famous “whites only” Woolworth’s lunch counter, transplanted from Greensboro, North Carolina. This was where in February 1960 four African-American college students defied the store’s policy and when asked to leave remained in their seats. Their passive resistance and peaceful sit-in protest helped ignite a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality throughout the South and ultimately led to the desegregation of the Woolworth lunch counter on July 25, 1960.
In August 2011, the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall became the first memorial of its kind on or near the National Mall to honor an African-American leader.
The city’s Civil Rights highlights also in Cedar Hill, home of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery and escaped to spend his life fighting for justice and equality for all people; and a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, who began campaigning for equal rights in the late 1890s.
Atlanta was at the epicenter of the civil rights movement, with protests, marches and boycotts held throughout the 1960s. It was here that Martin Luther King Jr. was born in a two-story house at 501 Auburn Avenue, in a neighborhood known as Sweet Auburn. It was also in Atlanta that King trained as a pastor, not far away from his birth home at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where for eight years he shared the pulpit with his father. Across from the church is the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc., which continues King’s legacy and work today. King’s gravesite can be found on a cleared lot east of the church. In 1976 a memorial park was installed here around the pedestal on which King’s marble crypt rests.
Visitors can also tread in the footsteps of leaders who struggled for equality along the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame, an outdoor promenade featuring the granite and bronze footprints of leaders such as Rosa Parks, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Harry Belafonte, Justice Thurgood Marshall, Ambassador Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis, and others. The Sweet Auburn Historic District walk, a 1.5-mile stretch of road that includes King’s birth home. It was created in 2004 to recognize to those who have sacrificed and struggled to make equality a reality for all people.
The mansion of former slave Alonzo Herndon, who became the city’s first African-American millionaire, is also open for tours.
It was in Montgomery in 1955 that seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man and helped launch the civil rights movement. Her arrest and trial prompted an organized boycott of Montgomery’s bus lines by city’s black residents and led to the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which elected a young reverend named Martin Luther King Jr. to be its president.
Today you can visit The Rosa Parks Museum, a major landmark in the revitalization of downtown Montgomery. It was built on the site of the old Empire Theatre, near where Parks made her courageous and historic stand. The interpretive museum occupies the first floor of a three-story building that also contains the TROY-Montgomery Campus Library. Six unique areas inside the museum tell the story of bravery and courage of early civil rights leaders.
In the Rosa Parks Library & Museum Children’s Wing, visitors can travel back in time via the Cleveland Avenue Time Machine to the early 1800’s and the early “Jim Crow” era, where they can witness scenes of segregation and social and legal challenges made by leaders such as Harriet Tubman, Dred Scott and Homer Plessy. Visitors also learn about the various legal challenges that helped shape an understanding that discrimination and segregation were both immoral and illegal. The exhibit uses multimedia effects to give visitors a glimpse of the bus boycott struggle and includes a 103-seat auditorium that hosts lectures and performances, such as readings of African-American women’s oral slave narratives. The museum’s artifacts include a restored 1955 station wagon and a replica of Mrs. Parks’ bus.
You can also visit the second-floor Research Center to learn more about the legal and social challenges related to the segregated bus system in Montgomery. In addition, visitors can view numerous historical documents and hear testimonials of men and women who actually participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and 1956.