By Debi Lander
On July 4, Americans celebrate our country’s independence. While the 13 colonies broke free in 1776, individual freedoms have come more slowly, with the struggle for Civil Rights continuing to this day.
To commemorate and explain the journey, the National Park Service and tourism officials have combined to create a U.S. Civil Rights Trail: a national listing of locations where important civil rights events took place. They chose only ones that offer visitors a stop well worth the time. The new Civil Rights Trail’s collection of churches, courthouses, schools, museums and other landmarks let travelers see and learn about the activists and the events that challenged segregation and changed the nation.
The presence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the most visible leader of the movement, emerges at locations in several states. His birthplace and gravesite sit just steps apart in downtown Atlanta. He led the successful bus boycott after the arrest of Rosa Parks from his first church, in Montgomery, Ala. The Memphis church where he gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the night before his assassination at the Lorraine Motel is a popular destination. The motel, expanded into the National Civil Rights Museum, is the most visited restored civil rights landmark in America. The museum highlights the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. King this year.
A stop in Greensboro, N.C. or Nashville, Tenn. reveals the F.W. Woolworth lunch counters where sit-ins by black college students in 1960 inspired a wave of similar nonviolent demonstrations.
The trail’s stops include four major museums including the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. opened in 2016. Still drawing immense crowds, the museum’s popularity requires reservations well in advance for its timed passes.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, now the centerpiece of a new national monument, faces the park where police fire hoses and dogs terrorized demonstrators in 1963 — across the street sits the 16th Street Baptist Church, site of the Sunday morning bombing that killed four young girls, injured many others, and brought national attention to the campaign for civil rights.
The Center for Civil and Human Rights is a major attraction in downtown Atlanta. The newest of the trail’s museums, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, opened in Jackson on Dec. 9, 2017. I recently had the opportunity to tour the Jackson site, the only state-sponsored civil rights museum and one focusing on Mississippi events. Eight interactive galleries grip visitors with striking images and stories. Seven of the galleries encircle a central space, highlighted by a sculpture called “This Little Light of Mine.” You move from the darkened galleries into the light as you work your way around the building. The sculpture becomes brightest when the music of the Movement swells, about every 15 minutes. I found myself pulled in by the clapping, swaying and singing of others who gathered in the space.
Warning: This is not a museum you can whisk through; there’s no sugarcoating here. The brutal stories make this a poignant place. The Emmett Till case, for example, reveals the riveting tale of a 14-year old boy beaten, shot and then thrown in a river for whistling at a white woman shop owner.
A lynching tree inscribed with names bears witness to the 600 Mississippians hung in the state. The displays include Ku Klux Klan robes and the rifle that killed Medgar Evans. The cutting-edge museum includes a number of informative videos set within small spaces — like the back of a police wagon or a jail cell. Sometimes you have to wait your turn to get in, but do take the time.
Civil and human rights remain at the center of political and social discourse today. The trail and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum highlight stories that Americans can’t and shouldn’t forget. I highly recommend a visit and suggest you plan to spend a minimum of a half-day.
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photos courtesy Debi Lander
The Woolworth Counter in Nashville, Tenn.