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The Past is Present on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail

Though they collect, curate and classify historic artifacts, museums aren’t actually about the past; they’re about the future. Museums serve as a nation’s collective memory. They preserve history so current and future generations can see it, know it and understand it.

One could argue that the American civil rights movement began after the American Civil War during the Reconstruction era, but the modern movement began in the mid-1950s in response to widespread racial segregation of and legal discrimination toward black U.S. citizens. That may all seem like distant, dusty history to the children of today.

On the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, museums embody efforts to preserve all of that past — from slavery through the civil rights movement to current struggles for equal rights — and retell it for the betterment of our future.

Gleamns Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Historical Preservation Site

Greenwood, South Carolina

It has been said that no person in America has done more to elevate the black man than Dr. Benjamin E. Mays. He was one of the most influential leaders of the early civil rights movement, but “still so few people know him,” said Chris Thomas, executive director of the Gleamns Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Historical Preservation Site in Greenwood, South Carolina.

In a September 2004 Ebony article, Lerone Bennett Jr. wrote that Mays led a “ministry of manhood” that spanned 60-some years, 27 of which he spent as president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he educated, mentored and raised up civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr.

At the site, visitors can tour Mays’ birth home and a one-room schoolhouse, both of which were moved to the property. What looks like an old barn is a modern museum built in 2009 where exhibits feature artifacts like Mays’ Ph.D. robe, the dining room set from his home at Morehouse and the trunk he used while traveling abroad, helping to internationalize the cause of equal rights.

When Mays traveled to India in 1936, he met Mahatma Gandhi, and their conversation about pacifism laid the foundation for the civil rights movement.

The museum also has a 60-person auditorium where, at the end of a guided tour, groups can watch a movie about Mays’ friendship with author Margaret Mitchell. At the site, groups will also find a garden, a cotton field and a life-size statue of Mays.

Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University

Montgomery, Alabama

Many people don’t realize that Rosa Parks was seated legally in the “colored section” on the Montgomery city bus when she was told to give up her seat for a white man.

Visitors to the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University in Montgomery, Alabama, will see a 1955 bus from the city’s fleet. Though it’s not the one Parks was riding December 1, 1955, when she was arrested, it’s where people today can watch a re-enactment film of what happened play through the bus windows.

The immersive exhibit is designed to evoke Parks’ experience; visitors even hear sirens when the police come, said museum director Felicia Bell.

The museum is designed to tell not only the story of Parks’ arrest but also how her act of resistance helped spark the Montgomery bus boycott.

Guests will see a 1955 “rolling church” station wagon — one of the actual vehicles churches used to transport black passengers during the boycott — and learn about the strategies organizers used. Throughout the museum, visitors can watch first-person oral history interviews from people who participated in the boycott.

The temporary exhibit space is always changing. This summer, an exhibit will bring together items from slavery through the civil rights movement contributed by private collectors. In the fall, the space will feature an exhibit about Parks herself and the broader civil rights movement in Alabama. Guided tours are available for groups of 10 or more.

Muhammad Ali Center

Louisville, Kentucky

Muhammad Ali lived by six core principles: dedication, confidence, spirituality, conviction, respect and giving. At the Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, after visitors exit the orientation theater, they enter exhibit pavilions dedicated to each of those six core principles.

The Conviction pavilion is where guests learn most about Ali’s contribution to the civil rights movement. It demonstrates both the turbulence of the 1960s and how Ali’s beliefs “led him to take action in ways that were personally risky and publicly controversial,” said Jeanie Kahnke, senior director of public relations and external affairs. “He used boxing as a platform to speak out about what he cared about.”

At the pavilion’s entrance, guests walk through a cafe and hear “Get out of here; we don’t serve your kind.” That happened to Ali in 1960 after he won a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics.

The center’s award-winning interactive exhibits explore Ali’s expansive life, including his humanitarian legacy and his sports legacy, his religious convictions and his legal fight as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. In September, the center will open an exhibit to commemorate the 60-year anniversary of Ali’s winning his gold medal.

Guided tours can be arranged and will lead groups through the pavilions. Visitors learn about Ali’s “Red Bike Moment” —  the pivotal moment that steered him to boxing — and guests can even try shadow boxing with the Champ himself in Ali’s re-created training camp exhibit.

Albany Civil Rights Institute

Albany, Georgia

During the Jim Crow era, the town of Albany, Georgia, “was totally segregated,” said W. Frank Wilson, executive director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute.

The Albany Movement began when student activists and a coalition of black-improvement associations launched a desegregation campaign in November 1961. The movement led to a series of marches and demonstrations, and local leaders eventually turned to King to bring national attention to their efforts.

“[King] came here not to lead a movement; he came here to make a speech … but he ended up making three speeches in one night,” Wilson said; the first at Shiloh, the second at Old Mount Zion Church across the street and the third back at Shiloh. The next day, King was arrested during a march to downtown, which led to daily arrests of students and activists.

When the Mount Zion congregation relocated in the late 1990s, the 1906 building was converted into the Albany Civil Rights Institute, and a museum addition was built. Guided 45-minute tours begin with an orientation film, and exhibits showcase documents, photographs and oral histories from people who participated in the movement. The church’s stained-glass windows and pews have been restored, so it “looks very much like it did when Dr. King spoke here,” Wilson said.

Visitors will also learn about Albany’s Freedom Singers. With advance notice, the institute can arrange for a private group performance or have Rutha Harris, one of only two surviving original Freedom Singers, meet with a group.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Washington, D.C.

Since opening in September 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has become a fixture on Washington’s National Mall.

The building’s exterior is covered in a gleaming, bronze-colored architectural scrim. Inside, the Smithsonian Institution museum features nearly 37,000 artifacts, documents and photos that embody moments of African American life, history and culture. Some of the most striking pieces include Harriet Tubman’s personal hymnal, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and a dress sewn by Rosa Parks.

One exhibit allows guests to sit behind the wheel of a 1940s Buick sedan to learn about the Green Book, which provided black travelers with a list of gas stations, restaurants and motels that were accommodating to black people during the Jim Crow era. Video plays on the inside of the windshield while an interactive touch-screen board allows people to “travel” from Chicago to Huntsville, Alabama, in 1949. Museum visitors must either choose stops listed as “friendly” in the Green Book or try their luck at other establishments.

The Musical Crossroads exhibit explores how African American music provided a voice for liberty, justice and social change. There, among 350-plus artifacts, visitors will see Chuck Berry’s Cadillac, Thomas Dorsey’s piano from Pilgrim Baptist Church and the clothing that opera singer Marian Anderson wore during her 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial. The Neighborhood Record Store features hundreds of album covers and an interactive exhibit where music fans can research music and music history.

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.