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Immortal Moments at Civil Rights Sites

Lincoln Memorial


Eighteen steps from the top of the Lincoln Memorial landing, facing out over the reflecting pool to the Washington Monument, an inscription reads:

“I Have a Dream

Martin Luther King Jr.

The March on Washington

For Jobs and Freedom

August 28, 1963”

The words mark the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his seminal speech, and since being added in 2003, the 40th anniversary of his speech, the inscription “has become such an integral part of the Lincoln Memorial,” said Mike Litterst, National Park Service spokesman for the National Mall. “I don’t have to stand at the bottom of the steps for more than 10 minutes before somebody asks me where the inscription of Dr. King’s speech is.”

Though the memorials in Washington are impressive, they’re not actual historic sites — but because King gave his speech at the Lincoln Memorial, “that has made it a dual site, as a memorial and a historic site,” Litterst said.

As the Great Emancipator, Lincoln’s principles infuse the memorial with powerful symbolism for any civil rights rally or social justice demonstration, especially for the African-American community, he said.

In addition to the March on Washington, the memorial was the site of the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom on May 17, 1957; that pilgrimage marked the third anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling and urged an end of resistance to integrating schools. During that rally, King delivered his “Give Us the Ballot” speech.

The memorial was also the site of another important moment in civil rights history when black contralto Marian Anderson sang to a crowd of 75,000 people there on Easter Sunday 1939 after being banned from performing at Constitution Hall.

Kelly Ingram Park

Birmingham, Alabama

Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama, served as a staging ground for the community’s large-scale demonstrations, marches and rallies during the height of the civil rights movement.

“They call it a park of reconciliation and resolution,” said Vickie Ashford, director of travel media for the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a solace you feel when you go through, even knowing the types of things that happened there — it’s a place that’s been blessed despite all the things that have happened there.”

Throughout the park, visitors will see sculptures that memorialize its place in history. One sculpture shows children behind bars and is engraved “I Ain’t Afraid Of Your Jail,” commemorating the hundreds of children who were arrested, beaten and sprayed with fire hoses during the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in early May 1963. Another statue shows a police officer and a police dog attacking a young protester, and another depicts children crouching in the invisible jet of a high-powered hose.

Visitors will also find a sculpture of pastors kneeling in prayer, a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. and a fountain in the center of the park.

The park’s “Four Spirits” bronze sits kitty-corner from 16th Street Baptist Church, where a Ku Klux Klan bomb exploded on September 15, 1963, killing four girls inside.

With a grant from the Alabama Tourism Department, the CVB developed a mobile phone audio tour of the park that takes visitors through a chronological history of the civil rights movement in Birmingham and provides the historical significance of each sculpture. Because visitors can dial into the audio tour on their cellphones, they can visit the park at any time and explore it at their own pace, Ashford said.

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.