For more than 50 years, Americans have learned about the civil rights movement in textbooks and history classes. But thanks to the United States Civil Rights Trail, travelers are rediscovering the historic sites and heroic figures in new and personal ways.
Launched in January 2018, the Civil Rights Trail is a collection of churches, courthouses, schools, museums and other landmarks where activists challenged racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. The trail encompasses more than 100 sites stretching from Kansas to Louisiana, Virginia and Georgia.
Developing the trail was a years-long project spearheaded by tourism leaders in Southern states who saw an opportunity to link and publicize these sites to travelers in the United States and abroad. Now, a little over a year after the official launch, organizers are realizing how much of an impact their work has made.
“All of us involved in this endeavor have been extremely pleased and excited with the media coverage that has been generated,” said Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department and one of the visionaries of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. “The extensive awareness that the media attention has generated has made this almost a household name in such a short period of time.
“The New York Times did three full pages in color several months ago that featured lesser-known civil rights sites. On the very same day, the Washington Post ran a full-page story on the museum in Farmville, Virginia, where Barbara Jones, a 16-year-old girl, convinced her schoolmates to strike in 1951. It was probably the earliest organized effort to end segregation in schools.
“The media coverage has exceeded our expectations. Our analysis of the circulation of the announcement last year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was well over $3 million in public relations value. We spent zero dollars on the launch.”
A Growing Membership
The Civil Rights Trail is the most comprehensive collection of significant civil rights sites ever compiled. Visitors following the trail through the South will encounter places where some of the most monumental moments in the civil rights movement took place.
In Alabama, they will see Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, the site of numerous marches and demonstrations. Also included is the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where violence erupted in a march that came to be known as Bloody Sunday.
In Arkansas, the trail includes Little Rock’s Central High School, the site of a tense integration standoff in 1957. And several sites related to Martin Luther King Jr. are on the trail as well, including his first church in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was assassinated.
The trail also features lesser-known sites and museums that tell stories from the civil rights movement. These include the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama; the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta; the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson; and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
Since the trail debuted in 2018, numerous other sites and museums have joined in the effort.
“We just announced five new sites in Florida where civil rights events occurred during the ’50s and ’60s,” Sentell said. “And we also added the Equal Justice Initiatives Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. So that’s six new sites overall.”
Outreach and Impact
After the trail launched, Sentell and others began promoting it at major events such as the World Travel Mart in London and the New York Times Travel Show. There they were able to talk face to face with travelers and see the impact the project was making on a personal level.
“One of the most memorable things for me was attending the New York Times Travel show in Manhattan the week after launch last year,” Sentell said. “An elderly African-American woman came up to our booth and said, ‘I grew up in South Carolina and left there as a young adult, and I haven’t been back. I never thought I would live to see something like this.’ That made it personal. It’s one thing to bring more groups to museums. But for a person on the street to have an emotional reaction like that was memorable.”
In addition to reaching individual travelers, organizers see the Civil Rights Trail making headway in the group travel market, where influential tour companies and travel organizations are able to bring people to significant civil rights sites by the busload.
“In the past, tour operators were aware of a museum here and a church there, but not many companies were aware that there are over 130 sites, primarily in the Deep South, worth linking together,” Sentell said.
“A good example of this is a nonprofit organization called the Educational Travel Consortium,” he said. “Each year, they go to some exotic international destinations they see as the next great place for well-traveled people to visit. This year, 300 of their members are coming to Montgomery, Alabama, and spending four days visiting civil rights sites, also [some] in Birmingham and Selma. They’re a very prestigious group travel organization, so we think other similar groups are going to follow their lead.”
Now that the trail has successfully launched and generated significant awareness and interest among the traveling public, organizers are beginning to shift their focus from growing the membership to establishing a long-term promotional strategy.
“Travel South USA, which is the offices of the Southeastern state tourism departments, has created a marketing alliance, and that group is generating funds to maintain the website and do marketing aimed at international tour operators,” Sentell said.
Another element of the promotional plan is an effort Sentell and others have undertaken to have key places on the Civil Rights Trail designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. This designation would bring invaluable attention to these civil rights landmarks and the trail in general.
“We are hopeful that our nomination will be considered by the World Heritage Conference in 2021,” Sentell said.