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Everyday Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

Sometimes people don’t know when they’re making history.

Thousands of protests, marches, sit-ins, boycotts and demonstrations occurred during the U.S. civil rights movement, as did many violent encounters. But certain events gained more attention, becoming flashpoints for the movement across the country that eventually led to passage of important civil rights legislation. 

Events at the following five sites in the South became turning points of the movement, and these sites are now part of the United States Civil Rights Trail.

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

Little Rock, Arkansas

Arkansas became the battleground for public school desegregation in 1957 as nine Black students attempted to attend Little Rock’s all-white Central High School. They were met with violent resistance by hundreds of people, including the Arkansas governor and the Arkansas National Guard. One student, Elizabeth Eckford, arrived alone and took the brunt of the mob’s wrath. One of the most poignant photos from the civil rights era shows her walking through a mob of white people on September 3, 1957, while they screamed and spit at her. 

It wasn’t until President Dwight Eisenhower ordered units from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort the children into the school on September 24, 1957, that they were able to attend their first full day of school. But the white students of Central High did not make it easy for the Little Rock Nine, dropping flaming pieces of toilet paper onto the heads of the girls as they tried to use the bathroom and placing crushed glass outside the shower stalls of the boys after gym class. 

Groups can take a tour of Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site to learn the stories of these brave students and what they endured at the hands of people that fought tooth and nail against desegregation. Travelers can see the exhibits at the Visitor’s Center, watch an interpretive film and then take a ranger-led tour of the site. Other highlights include the Commemorative Garden; a photographic history of what happened inlaid on brick and concrete arches; the Elizabeth Eckford Bus Bench, where young Eckford waited to try and get away from the angry mob; and the Magnolia Mobil Gas Station that once served as a visitor center, a hangout for students and a temporary office for reporters during the desegregation crisis.

National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel

Memphis, Tennessee 

Located at the historic Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, is a place where generations of people come to reflect. The museum’s courtyard, with the Lorraine Motel marquee on one side and the balcony where King was shot on the other, is the first place visitors to the museum want to visit. The motel and room 306, where King stayed the night before his assassination, have been preserved as a memorial.

The museum is in a building across the street from the motel. It features interactive and immersive historical and contemporary exhibits that examine civil and human rights by looking more closely at slavery, voting rights, immigration and Jim Crow, as well as King’s influence and last days. Groups can learn about the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, sit-ins at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other significant moments from the civil rights era.

Visitors come to learn and engage in civil rights history to better understand how this history affects them today. The museum provokes thoughtful debate with its public forums, book talks, distinguished speaker series, and one-on-one conversations with civil rights icons and new movement makers.

Thousands come to march, demonstrate, die-in, sing, speak out and stand up in solidarity to fight for positive social change. The site of a great tragedy has turned into a place of triumph.

SNCC Formation at Shaw University

Raleigh, North Carolina

Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, was founded in 1865 by former Union Army chaplain Henry Martin Tupper and his wife, Sarah, to educate emancipated slaves. On April 15, 1960, 200 students involved in sit-ins at all-white lunch counters across the South met at Shaw to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a student organization that fought for civil rights, beginning with sit-ins and evolving into Freedom Rides, voter drives and political organizing. 

“Our DNA is in social justice. It was an act of social justice that we were going to lift ourselves up,” said Valerie Ann Johnson, dean of arts, sciences and humanities and a professor of sociology at Shaw.

Groups visiting the university can take a tour of the campus and see some of the original buildings, among them Estey Hall, which was built in 1873 as a dormitory for Black women, and the first four-year medical school in the country, created in 1885.  

A street bisects campus going north and south. An overpass connects the east and west sides of campus. On the east side of the bridge is a mural of Henry Martin Tupper and Ella Baker, who helped birth SNCC on campus. Baker was an alumnus of Shaw and a field organizer with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP. She helped the young people articulate their ideas and determine what direction they wanted the civil rights movement to take. 

“That was the genius of her involvement and why SNCC could take off the way it did,” Johnson said. “She kept the older folk from making it just another arm of the NAACP or another arm of SCLC. It was its own entity, and that was really important.”

16th Street Baptist Church

Birmingham, Alabama

In Birmingham, Alabama, the 16th Street Baptist Church became a turning point in the civil rights movement because it was the site of the bombing on September 15, 1963, that left four young Black girls dead and others injured. The church had featured prominently in the movement’s efforts to fill up Birmingham’s jails with protesters after King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” roused many African Americans across the country to take up the cause of civil rights. 

While King was in jail, a few of his lieutenants thought it would be a good idea to get young people involved in the marches. They came to the 16th Street Baptist Church on May 3, 1963, to participate in nonviolence and civil disobedience training. King’s goal was to have them leave the church 50 at a time to protest and get arrested so that the movement would end up on television. 

Later that year, 18 days after King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech saying he wanted children to be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin, white supremacists planted sticks of dynamite near the steps of the church, blowing a hole in the wall and causing it to collapse on the children, said current pastor Arthur Price Jr. 

“It was a terrorist event, and it made people take introspection of what they were for and against,” he said. Many were against integration, but “they were not for murder and terrorism.” 

The church created a tour ministry to handle the up to 70,000 visitors who visit the church annually wanting to know more about its place in history.

Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument

Jackson, Mississippi

Mississippi native Medgar Evers fought for his country at the Battle of Normandy during World War II, but when he returned home, he realized his service didn’t protect him from racism or give him equal rights. He decided to attend Alcorn State University majoring in business administration because he thought it was important for African Americans to have economic opportunity. While working for an insurance company in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, Evers became president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, getting involved in boycotting gas stations in the Mississippi Delta that wouldn’t allow Black people to use the bathroom. 

He was tapped to serve as the first field secretary for the NAACP in the Mississippi Delta and was asked to move to Jackson. There he investigated 10 racially motivated murders, including the lynching of Emmett Till, and tested the efficacy of Brown v. Board of Education by applying for admission to law school at the segregated University of Mississippi. His acceptance was later rescinded once the school learned of his race.

He led marches, prayer vigils, voter registration drives and boycotts against white merchants, becoming a target for the Ku Klux Klan. Evers received constant death threats and tried to prepare his family for his imminent death. One night, returning home after midnight, white supremacists shot and killed him in his carport. 

The National Park Service took over management of Evers’ home in Jackson, Mississippi, in December 2021. The home is closed to tours as the NPS brings the building up to code and works to fill it with period-appropriate furnishings. Group visitors can learn more about Evers and his place in the civil rights movement at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which features an extensive exhibit about his life. 

“People go to the museum for interpretation and go to the home for power of place to the ground where he was assassinated,” said Keena Graham, superintendent of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument.