Editor’s Note: This post has been updated with new information. It was originally released in February 2021.
“We are not story makers. We are made by history.
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s looms large in the American narrative that earlier struggles for racial equality may not be fully appreciated. This is especially true when looking at civil rights through the lens of the Black Lives Matter protests.
To understand what the civil rights movement has achieved, you must walk in the footsteps of those who fought for freedom and experience the civil rights struggle where history was written.
The US Civil Rights Trail was created in 2018 to preserve and share the story of one of the most transformative periods in America’s history. The trail passes through 15 mostly Southern states and Washington, DC, where pivotal civil rights battles took place.
The trail is wide; you will need to travel by road, rail or plane to begin your historical experiences. There are over 100 locations from Kansas to Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and the Carolinas to Delaware where you can explore and experience key moments from the civil rights movement.
Here are some notable destinations to consider on your journey down the Civil Rights Trail.
Birmingham is credited with the rise of the civil rights movement due to a pivotal event on September 15, 1963: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
The explosion killed four young black girls who attended Sunday school. Ironically, the Sunday School lesson that day was titled “A Forgiving Love.”
The church bombing, which occurred three weeks after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC, shook the nation and galvanized civil rights activists.
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Today, 16th Street Baptist Church remains an active church, and its basement is a museum honoring the four little girls. The museum also tells the story of the church from its inception in 1873. Its centerpiece is the Experiment Room, which contains a clock that stopped at 10:22 a.m., the exact time of the explosion.
Directly opposite the church are two other stops on the Civil Rights Trail: the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is a modern museum dedicated to preserving the history of the civil rights movement in Birmingham and Alabama. The Institute houses many artifacts, including the door to the prison cell that held Martin Luther King Jr.
Kelly Ingram Park was a staging area for many protests in Birmingham led by King, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and others.
Today the park is a sculpture garden that showcases powerful artwork to tell emotionally charged stories about Birmingham’s civil rights movement.
Other Civil Rights Trail markers in Alabama include the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma – the site of “Bloody Sunday,” the brutal beatings of the suffrage marchers.
The bridge was named after the former Confederate Brigadier General, U.S. Senator, and Ku Klux Klan leader from Alabama, and it remains a living reminder of Jim Crow. Recently, the remains of civil rights icon John Lewis were transported through this same structure where he nearly lost his life on Bloody Sunday.
In Montgomery you will find the National Peace and Justice Memorial. The memorial displays 805 hanging steel rectangles representing counties across the United States where a lynching has been documented.
Also in Montgomery, a museum dedicated to Rosa Parks stands at the site of her famous bus arrest.
Related: 10 Destinations Where You Can Learn About America’s Black History
New Orleans’ historic Treme neighborhood, recently made famous by an HBO series of the same name, sits on the Civil Rights Trail.
Treme is the oldest African-American neighborhood in the country. It is also a neighborhood where free people of color could buy land in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the country was still steeped in slavery.
Many museums are devoted to African-American life and culture. A stone’s throw from the French Quarter, Louis Armstrong Park is a public park that honors the greats of jazz.
Related: Traveling to New Orleans to find the real Big Easy
A stop along the Civil Rights Trail in Atlanta showcases the birthplace and burial site of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Travelers can visit King’s childhood home and pay their respects at his grave site at the King Center.
You can follow the Freedom Trail, which recognizes people and places that played an important role in the civil rights movement. It was created in 2011 to provide a roadmap of Mississippi’s civil rights history.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson is the only museum in the state that covers the entire civil rights movement. Opened in 2017, it pays particular attention to the murders of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till.
Near the banks of the Mississippi is the National Civil Rights Museum in the former Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Clinton High School in Clinton, Tennessee is also an important site. It commemorates the Clinton 12 – a group of African American students – who attended their first day of class on August 26, 1956, following the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.
While Clinton High School became the first public high school in the South to be integrated, it was not a smooth transition with protesters and riots, and the school was bombed after hours a year later.
The Clinton 12 are commemorated by life-size bronze statues that stand in front of the city’s Green McAdoo Cultural Center.
Related: In Memphis, the National Civil Rights Museum pays homage to a tragedy – and shines a light on a mid-century travel icon
A more recent addition to the Civil Rights Trail is the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History, which is significant to the Civil War, as well as the Civil Rights movement.
This Danville site joins Farmville and Richmond as one of three designated trail sites in Virginia. Known as “the last capital of the Confederacy” in the 1960s, Danville was the scene of some of the most violent clashes in civil rights history.
The Confederate mansion, turned into a public library, is now the museum, and in 1960 a group of protesters staged a sit-in at the library. Rather than admit black visitors, Danville officials chose to close the library.
Other protests for racial equality followed, and all were met with heavy resistance, with the summer of 1963 being the worst of the clashes.
The District of Columbia was not a battleground in the struggle for civil rights. However, there have been civil rights fights that have taken place in the United States Supreme Court, including the seminal decision in Brown vs. Board of Education that made school segregation illegal.
The Lincoln Memorial is also where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech during the March on Washington – one of the largest human rights demonstrations in history. American. There is a marble marker on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where King stood.
You’ll find the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the National Museum of African American History and Culture along the National Mall. This Smithsonian museum is the only national museum entirely dedicated to the African-American experience.
Related: TPG’s guide to Union Station in Washington, DC
There are notable monuments, museums, and landmarks in other states along the Civil Rights Trail that should not be overlooked. Missouri, Kansas, the Carolinas, Delaware, Florida, Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia have all played significant roles in civil rights struggles.
The Civil Rights Trail continues to grow as new destinations and attractions are constantly added.
It’s worth tracing back the “good trouble” path to appreciate what leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis accomplished. We must learn the lessons of the past so that they can be preserved for the future.
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