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Four Ways to Experience the U.S. Civil Rights Trail

The fight for civil rights was a nationwide movement, but the South was the hotbed where activists protested and marched; held sit-ins and swim-ins; and organized boycotts, strikes and voter-registration drives.

The United States Civil Rights Trail demonstrates the depth and breadth of the movement with over 100 sites in 15 states, plus the District of Columbia. To discover some of these amazing places, plan a regional road trip that includes stops at numerous sites on the Civil Rights Trail and provides a regional take on the important people and places of the civil rights movement.

Here are four road trip itineraries to follow as you explore the Civil Rights Trail.

Mississippi River Area: Memphis to New Orleans

Beginning in Memphis, Tennessee, this itinerary roughly follows the Mississippi River south, with a detour to Little Rock, Arkansas, and continues all the way to New Orleans. Along the way, travelers will find important sites associated with Martin Luther King Jr. and several notable museums and historic places.

Memphis, Tennessee

Memphis is hallowed ground on the Civil Rights Trail. The city is where King delivered his final and some say prophetic speech at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ the night before he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. The recently renovated National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel features state-of-the-art, interactive exhibits that showcase iconic artifacts, such as a sit-in counter and a Freedom Rider bus. The “I Am a Man” exhibit tells how King came to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. The two rooms where King would usually stay have been preserved as they were on April 4, 1968, and guests can see into the rooms and through to the balcony where King was assassinated.

Little Rock, Arkansas

When the Little Rock Nine tried to enter the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School on September 4, 1957, they were met by a mob of angry segregationists, crowds of press and National Guard troops ordered by the Arkansas governor to keep them out. By the end of the month, those nine students were again met by National Guard troops, this time ordered by President Eisenhower to escort them in.

The Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site is an active school, so access to the building is limited; but site tours include the visitor center, a commemorative garden and a historically preserved Mobil gas station, and if possible, the school’s foyer, auditorium and cafeteria. Groups can also visit the Little Rock Nine Memorial at the state Capitol.

Jackson, Mississippi

The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opened in December 2017 and has quickly become a must-visit site on the Civil Rights Trail. Eight galleries focus on the years 1945 to 1976 when Mississippi was on the front lines of the civil rights movement. Galleries lead visitors from the Mississippi slaves’ struggle for freedom through Reconstruction and from World War II through the Jim Crow era and the fight for equal rights. The final gallery asks guests to think about changes and contributions they can make in their own communities.

In the central rotunda, the soaring sculpture “This Little Light of Mine” changes color above visitors’ heads as freedom songs play, and throughout the museum, guests will find small theaters playing films that tie into each exhibit.

New Orleans

Ruby Bridges was only 6 years old in 1960 when she became the first African-American student to attend the previously all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Four federal marshals escorted Ruby and her mother to the school every day that year past angry crowds lobbing vicious slurs. Groups can visit the school, where a statue of Ruby stands in the courtyard, and arrange to tour the building, which includes the restored classroom 2306.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is still an active courtroom, but groups can also arrange tours of the National Historic Landmark where the judges are known as the Fifth Circuit Four for handing down decisions that were crucial in integrating schools and advancing civil rights for African-Americans.

Alabama and Georgia: Selma to Albany

Many of the most significant events of the civil rights movement took place in the Deep South states of Alabama and Georgia. This itinerary begins in Selma, Alabama, and circles to Birmingham, Alabama; Atlanta; and Albany, Georgia, to showcase some monumental civil rights sites.

Selma, Alabama

Selma, Alabama, was ground zero during the fight for African-Americans’ voting rights. On March 7, 1965, activists began a 54-mile march from Selma to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. But as hundreds of nonviolent demonstrators attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers and sheriffs’ deputies knocked them down, gassed them and beat them.

The violent attack, known as Bloody Sunday, bolstered support for the campaign, and the subsequent marches helped pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Today, people flock to Selma to walk across the bridge. Visitors can learn more about the fight for voting rights at the free Selma Interpretive Center at the foot of the bridge and at the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute across the bridge.

Birmingham, Alabama

A trifecta of civil rights sites sits at one intersection in Birmingham: the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park, which served as a staging ground for the community’s large-scale demonstrations, marches and rallies.

On September 15, 1963, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church building killing four young girls: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. Their faces are memorialized in the bronze statue “Four Spirits” across from the church at the edge of the park. Groups can tour the 1911 church and explore exhibits at the institute. A mobile phone audio tour of the park takes visitors through Birmingham’s role in the civil rights movement and provides the historical significance of each of the park’s sculptures.

Atlanta

King was born in Atlanta, and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park includes his childhood home, where he lived until he was 12, as well as the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he was ordained at 19 and served as co-pastor with his father until his death in 1968. Groups can explore King’s boyhood home, the visitor center and the rose garden.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change recently added audio of King’s voice throughout the campus and video monitors in Freedom Hall; the reflecting pool where King and his wife are entombed in a white crypt was renovated as well.

The Center for Civil and Human Rights immerses visitors in the civil rights era through interactive, sensory exhibits.

Albany, Georgia

The Albany Movement began at Shiloh Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. Student activists and a coalition of black-improvement associations launched the desegregation campaign in November 1961 to challenge all forms of racial segregation and discrimination in the city. The movement led to a series of protests and demonstrations, and local leaders eventually turned to King to bring national attention to their efforts.

Across the street from Shiloh Baptist, the Old Mount Zion Church is another site where mass meetings were held. The restored 1906 church is now part of the Albany Civil Rights Institute, where museum exhibits include oral histories, documents and photographs from the era. Groups can also learn about the music of the civil rights movement and can even hear the Freedom Singers perform every second Saturday of the month.

The Carolinas: St. Helena Island to Raleigh

While major events in the fight for civil rights were taking place in Alabama and Georgia, residents of North and South Carolina were demonstrating and marching for their rights as well. This itinerary starts in St. Helena Island, South Carolina, and proceeds north to the state capitol in Columbia; it then crosses into North Carolina with stops in Greensboro and Raleigh.

St. Helena Island, South Carolina

The Penn Center on South Carolina’s St. Helena Island is the site of the Penn School, the first school in the South for freed slaves, which was founded in 1862, three years before the Civil War ended. Teachers from Pennsylvania came to the island as part of the Port Royal Experiment to educate black people.

The 50-acre campus is home to 19 buildings. Visitors can step inside the Brick Baptist Church, the largest building on campus, where slaves-turned-students learned reading, writing and arithmetic. Other historic buildings include dormitories, the dining hall and the community house. Groups can explore the York W. Bailey Museum and will also find a farmers market housed in an old barn and a new aquaponic greenhouse where the center is raising fish and growing herbs.

Columbia, South Carolina

Downtown Columbia was the site of many important moments in the civil rights movement. On March 2, 1961, NAACP leaders and more than 200 students from local black colleges and segregated high schools marched from the Zion Baptist Church to the South Carolina State House. On the statehouse grounds, protestors sang “The Star Spangled Banner” and “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and 187 of them were arrested. Free guided and self-guided tours of the statehouse are available Monday through Friday.

Groups can also schedule a visit to the small, white cottage that was home to Modjeska Monteith, an important leader of the civil rights movement in South Carolina. Her cottage was used to house civil rights leaders and host meetings.

Greensboro, North Carolina

The International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, opened in 2010 in the F.W. Woolworth building, where four students had begun sit-in protests at the lunch counter 50 years earlier. The former department store was slated for demolition in the early 1990s, but local leaders saved the property and turned it into a museum that included the original lunch counter where the sit-ins took place from February 1 to July 25, 1960. The museum’s 16 galleries focus on the Greensboro demonstrations then expand to explore the civil rights movement more broadly.

On the North Carolina A&T State University campus, groups can also visit the February One Monument, which honors the four A&T students who planned and carried out the first sit-in at Woolworth’s.

Raleigh, North Carolina

At historically black colleges like Shaw University and St. Augustine’s University, Raleigh’s black students and activists played an important role in the civil rights movement through protests and sit-ins at local stores. Shaw alumna Ella Baker founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at her alma mater in 1960. When Estey Hall was built on the Shaw campus in 1874, it was the first building constructed in the U.S. for the higher education of black women; today, it is Shaw University’s oldest surviving building.

Also in Raleigh, the features a life-size sculpture of King and a granite water monument to the city’s civil rights leaders.

Mid-Atlantic: Richmond to Wilmington

Cities in the upper South and Mid-Atlantic had important roles to play in the civil rights movement. This itinerary begins in Richmond, Virginia, and travels north to Washington, D.C.; west to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; and then, finally, east to the Atlantic coast in Wilmington, Delaware.

Richmond, Virginia

On April 23, 1951, Barbara Rose Johns led a student body walkout to protest overcrowding and inferior conditions at Robert Russa Moton High School, Prince Edward County’s all-black high school. When the school opened in 1939 in Farmville, Virginia, it was built to house 180 students. By the late 1940s, enrollment had grown to more than 450 students, many of whom were being taught in leaking tar-paper shacks with no insulation.

The NAACP lawsuit against the county, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, later became one of five cases folded into the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that made segregation unlawful. Johns and her fellow students are honored in the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond.

Washington

The nation’s capital is home to several iconic sites that symbolize the struggle of the civil rights movement. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom culminated at the Lincoln Memorial, where King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Nearby, also on the National Mall, visitors will see the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

Groups can also visit the U.S. Supreme Court, where docents lead lectures and visitors can explore exhibits and videos about the court and its important cases, including the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September 2016, and inside, the Smithsonian Institution museum features nearly 37,000 artifacts, documents and photos that explore Africa-American life, history and culture.

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Harpers Ferry is a historic town turned national park in West Virginia. In Lower Town, historic buildings line Shenandoah, High and Potomac streets and house museums and exhibits along with the information center and a bookshop.

Storer College was founded in Harpers Ferry in 1865, and the historically black college trained black schoolteachers to meet the influx of freedmen seeking education. Ironically, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ended school segregation in 1954 led to Storer College’s closing in 1955. State officials decided to end the college’s yearly stipend because the board preferred to support state-sponsored schools that had more students. Many of the former campus buildings are still within the national park today, including Anthony Hall, where the Niagara Movement met in 1906.

Wilmington, Delaware

Howard High School in Wilmington, Delaware, is one of the schools associated with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ruled racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Parents of black students living in Claymont, Delaware, sued to enroll their children in the local all-white high school. Before the Brown ruling, black students were bused to Howard High School, which was nine miles away in an “undesirable” part of Wilmington. The school became a designated National Historic Landmark in 2005 and was renovated in 2014 to become Howard High School of Technology but is not open for public tours.

Rachel Carter

Rachel Carter worked as a newspaper reporter for eight years and spent two years as an online news editor before launching her freelance career. She now writes for national meetings magazines and travel trade publications.

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