In one of his famed letters penned from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
The marches, sit-ins and protests of the civil rights era garner much of our modern-day attention, but social justice activists can be found in every decade, in every city, in every capacity: the daughter of former slaves who became a teacher and community activist, two men who started out selling death and burial insurance but ended up creating an organization that served the black community.
Social justice is demanded through coordinated campaigns and passionate protests, but it is also accomplished in small deeds and everyday goodness. Numerous sites on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail tell the stories of people who took a stand for justice in the face of opposition.
Edmund Pettus Bridge
“This is Selma, Alabama. There are more Negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls,” King wrote in the New York Times in February 1965.
After months of trying to register black voters in Dallas County, to no avail, activists took to the streets in early 1965. When King arrived to participate in the peaceful demonstrations, he and hundreds of other protesters were arrested.
Activists decided to take their cause to the state capital during a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery. On the morning of March 7, 1965, hundreds of demonstrators reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge only to be blocked by state troopers and sheriff’s deputies who knocked the protestors down, released tear gas and beat them with bullwhips, billy clubs and barbed-wire-wrapped rubber tubing.
The violent attack, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, was broadcast around the nation, prompting thousands of supporters to flock to Selma. Two weeks later, King led the five-day march to Montgomery, helping to spur the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Today, people make their own pilgrimage to Selma to walk across the bridge.
“They want to try to imagine what it was like that day in 1965 and experience a part of that history,” said Sheryl Smedley, executive director of Selma and Dallas County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Information.
Visitors can learn about the marches at the Selma Interpretive Center, a free museum at the bridge’s base. Efforts are also underway to turn the neighboring building into a 100-person theater.
Every year during the first weekend in March, about 30,000 people flock to Selma for the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee. On the Sunday of the festival, throngs of visitors gather to walk across the bridge to commemorate Bloody Sunday.
Memphis Tennessee Garrison House
Huntington, West Virginia
Memphis Tennessee Garrison was a teacher in Huntington, West Virginia, who took that role beyond the classroom and into the community.
“She was a teacher by trade but also a teacher in life,” said Lori Thompson, vice president of the Carter G. Woodson Memorial Foundation and head of special collections at Marshall University.
Garrison was born in 1890 in Virginia to former slaves, and her father’s work as a coal miner took them to the coalfields of West Virginia. After earning her bachelor’s degree, Garrison began teaching in 1908, a career she continued until retiring in the early 1950s.
Garrison established the local NAACP branch in 1921 and was the national vice president of the NAACP board of directors in the mid-1960s. She also served as the community mediator for U.S. Steel Gary Mines, organized Girl Scout troops for African American girls, created a breakfast program for impoverished students during the Great Depression and created the Negro Artist Series.
Though Garrison died in 1988 at the age of 98, “people still talk about her around here,” Thompson said. “She had such a mentorship impact in this area.”
When members of the Woodson foundation board heard that Garrison’s home was available in a tax sale, the foundation bought it to create a museum for black history in Huntington. Woodson was the Huntington historian, author and journalist who is known as the Father of Black History.
The foundation received National Historic Landmark status for the two-story house in 2017, and the organization is working to raise funds for the future museum.
Hayti Heritage Center
Durham, North Carolina
The building that houses the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, North Carolina, has had two lives: first, as the thriving St. Joseph’s AME Church, and now, as a cultural hub for the historically black community of Hayti (pronounced “hay-tie”).
Hayti began as a place for freed slaves to settle after emancipation. By the early 1900s, Parrish Street had been dubbed “Black Wall Street,” and Hayti had become so prosperous that it was considered a model for how black communities could thrive in the segregated South.
“This was the African American community of Durham,” said Angela Lee, executive director of the Hayti Heritage Center. “This was the only place where we could live and we could work and we could socialize.”
In 1970, the city built a freeway directly through the neighborhood, severing Hayti from downtown and displacing thousands of families and hundreds of businesses.
After the congregation relocated to a new building, the St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation established the Hayti Heritage Center in 1975 with the mission to use the 1891 steepled church as a cultural hub to preserve Hayti’s history and promote its heritage.
The center’s core programs are anchored in visual and performing arts; they include a concert series, annual music and film festivals, and art exhibitions that focus on local artists of color.
The center also offers walking tours of Hayti that usually start inside the center, where groups will see the sanctuary’s intricate pressed-tin ceiling and 24 stained-glass windows. Groups can also arrange for Q&A sessions with a local who shares stories of growing up in Hayti.
Mississippi Freedom Trail
Created in 2011, the Mississippi Freedom Trail commemorates the people and places in the state that played pivotal roles in the U.S. civil rights movement.
Today, the trail features more than 25 markers, including several in the capital city of Jackson. At the Greyhound Bus Station, a marker recognizes the Freedom Riders and the 300-plus people who were arrested in Jackson in the summer of 1961 for integrating public transportation facilities.
A marker at the Mississippi State Capitol commemorates the 1966 three-week March Against Fear that began in Memphis, Tennessee, and ended with a rally at the Capitol, where some 15,000 people gathered to hear notable speakers, including King. Guided group tours of the Capitol are available by reservation, and visitors can also take self-guided tours.
A marker at Medgar Evers’ home remembers the Mississippi NAACP’s first state field secretary, who was assassinated in his driveway in 1963. Groups can tour the Evers’ house museum, which has been restored to look as it did when his family lived there, including his children’s mattresses placed directly on the floor to reduce the chance that they could be shot through the windows of their home.
In Ruleville, Mississippi, groups can visit the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden, where they’ll find Hamer’s gravesite and a statue of the noted civil and voting rights activist.
Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail
Little Rock, Arkansas
The Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail launched in 2011 to honor the people who fought for racial justice in Arkansas. The trail of 75-some brass markers, one for each honoree, begins in front of the Old State House Museum, and new markers are installed in the sidewalk along West Markham Street each year. Eventually, the trail will stretch to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.
The markers serve as “daily reminders of where we’ve been and where we’re headed,” said Kiki Mannear, tourism sales manager for the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Groups can explore the names on the markers beyond the trail. Each of the Little Rock Nine, the first African American students to enroll in Little Rock Central High School in 1957, has a marker. The Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site is still an operating school, so guided tours are available on a limited basis, but groups will also find a visitor center and the preserved Mobil gas station.
During the desegregation, Daisy Bates, then-president of the Arkansas NAACP chapter, was a mentor and advocate for the Little Rock Nine. Tours of her preserved home can be arranged.
Also on the trail, visitors will find the names of John E. Bush and Chester W. Keatts, who in 1883 founded the Mosaic Templars of America, a black fraternal organization. The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center opened in 2008 with exhibits that focus on the city’s thriving West Ninth Street business district and the area’s black culture, black community and black-owned businesses during the Jim Crow era.