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Small Towns of the Civil Rights Movement

Steeped in the beauty of the Southeast, small towns on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail offer more than scenery and charm; they’re a testament that the smallest places can set the stage for some of the biggest changes.

The historic buildings, monuments and landmarks on the trail were once sites of protests, secret meetings and, sometimes, tragedies that occurred during the civil rights movement. In each city, visitors will find not only history but also inspiration in true stories of courage and leadership.

Travelers looking to delight in historic architecture, nature and diverse cuisine while gaining perspective about one of the nation’s most critical social movements should add these towns to their itineraries.

Selma, Alabama

In 1865, the Battle of Selma in Selma, Alabama, ended in a crushing defeat for the Confederacy as Union soldiers destroyed the Confederacy’s arsenal about a month before the Civil War’s end. One hundred years later, Selma was the site of one of the most significant events in the civil rights movement — Bloody Sunday. To protest the obstacles faced by Black voters and the murder of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, peaceful demonstrators attempted to march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge and were met with violence at the hands of state troopers. Footage of the brutal attacks shocked the nation and eventually spurred the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Today, groups traveling to Selma can visit the bridge, one of many important sites on the Civil Rights Trail, and the National Park Service’s nearby interpretive center. Other important sites include the Tabernacle Baptist Church, where the first mass meeting of the voting rights movement was held, and Brown Chapel, the site of preparations for the march from Selma to Montgomery. Fans of the movie “Selma” can see the Jackson House, which was featured in the film and hosted Martin Luther King Jr. when he stayed in town.

One of the most powerful ways for groups to experience Selma’s extensive civil rights history is with the city’s foot soldiers — tour guides who participated in the march when they were students.

“When you meet one of them, they share their experiences of what they experienced during the movement,” said Sheryl Smedley, executive director of the Selma and Dallas County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Information.

In addition to its many historic landmarks and its featured spot on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, Selma is known for its hospitality and good Southern cooking. Travelers can eat at Lannie’s BBQ, a well-known stop for a hot meal with a side of history.

Sarasota, Florida

In 1927, the winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers Circus was moved to Sarasota, Florida. The Ringlings had long been established in Sarasota, and at one point owned as much as a quarter of the town’s land, inextricably linking the history of this Florida beach town with the Greatest Show on Earth. There are nods to the circus’ legacy throughout the city, from the Circus Ring of Fame, where groups can explore the legacies of circus performers, to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, which is both the state art museum of Florida and the city’s No. 1 attraction.

Sarasota has another major historical draw to the area: Lido Beach, the southernmost point on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. In the 1950s and ’60s, African Americans were allowed to use less than two miles of Florida’s 2,000 miles of shoreline. Demonstrators began staging “wade-ins” at Lido Beach that called national media attention to the issue and advanced the fight against segregation.

“There was a very key victory for Black and brown people when the NAACP asserted its right to the beach,” said Vickie Oldham, local historian and president and CEO of the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition Inc.

Once they’ve taken in Sarasota’s history, travelers can visit the Selby Botanical Gardens, where they’ll see exotic plants from around the world. At the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, they can see and learn about the many species of marine life in Sarasota through interactive exhibits. To enjoy elegantly plated continental fare in the ambience of a historic building, visitors can dine in what was once John Ringling’s office at Café L’Europe. For a more casual atmosphere, they can head to Der Dutchman Restaurant, which serves traditional Amish family recipes and homemade pies.

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

The picturesque, hilly town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, can be found at the convergence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, surrounded by the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The red brick buildings, lush forests and rushing rivers make Harpers Ferry seem like something out of a storybook, but there’s more to this idyllic town than meets the eye; in 1859, it was the site of the famous raid led by abolitionist John Brown, who attacked the federal armory in an attempt to lead an uprising and end slavery. Harpers Ferry is also home to Storer College, the first school in the state that educated former slaves. This educational institution was where W.E.B. DuBois held the 1906 conference that planted the seed for the formation of the NAACP.

To learn more about Black history in the area, travelers can follow in the Jefferson County African American Heritage Trail. Sites one through 10 on the trail are located in Harpers Ferry, including the fort where John Brown’s attempted raid took place, the John Brown Museum and Storer College, which features three rooms of exhibits. Visitors can also participate in ghost tours of Harpers Ferry for a spookier take on local history.

There are many opportunities to enjoy the beautiful natural scenery of Harpers Ferry. The town marks the halfway point on Appalachian Trail, and travelers can walk a portion of the trail up to Jefferson Rock, an interesting rock formation that overlooks the Shenandoah River. To refuel, visitors can grab something sweet at True Treats Historic Candy, the only historic candy shop in the country. For something more filling, they can grab a bite at the Anvil Restaurant, which serves a variety of seafood and classic dinner staples.

Canton, Mississippi

With a beautiful Greek Revival courthouse as its centerpiece and rows of multicolored buildings surrounding it, the Courthouse Square District in Canton, Mississippi, can be found on the National Register of Historic Places. While its historic square charms visitors, Canton is also home to many historic sites and important figures in the civil rights movement. The city is committed to preserving and highlighting its diverse history, which is why it created the Canton Multicultural Center and Museum, a museum showcasing the cultural heritage of many of Canton’s residents and the causes they advocated for.

“We of course have a very diverse community,” said Jo Ann Gordon, director of the Canton Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We celebrate many cultures in the area, and in our town, and we have always had the wonderful opportunity to have the African American experience here.”

To learn more about its extensive history in the civil rights movement, groups can take the African American Historical Heritage Driving Tour, which originates in the Canton Welcome Center. From there, a step-on guide will narrate the journey through Canton and the surrounding area, pointing out critical stops on the Civil Rights Trail, such as the Canton Freedom House, where important figures in the movement such as Martin Luther King Jr. organized protests, and the Historic Madison County Courthouse, where demonstrators showed up to register to vote despite the many obstacles placed in their path.

The city has a rich history in the film industry because of the multiple movies shot there and is often referred to as the film capital of Mississippi. Travelers can even visit the original Warner Brothers set of the movie “A Time to Kill” at the Canton Movie Museums. Visitors can round out their itineraries with the variety of fare Canton’s restaurants offer, from traditional Southern cooking to fine dining.

Danville, Virginia

As the last standing Confederate capital, the quiet city on the Dan River known as Danville, Virginia, was long a source of racial tension. In 1960, Black students staged a sit-in at the Danville Public Library. Rather than allow them to simply do their schoolwork, the library closed altogether. Other protests followed, including the events of Bloody Monday, when demonstrators were met with police brutality.

Today, the same building that once denied entry to its Black citizens is now the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History, where an exhibit titled “The Movement” presents testimonies of the protestors who staged the sit-in and depicts the struggles they faced in the often-dangerous fight for equality. Several other notable historic landmarks can be found in Danville, including High Street Baptist Church, where activists organized demonstrations. They can visit the museum and nearby landmarks to learn about the extensive role the city played in the civil rights movement.

History buffs will also appreciate Danville’s AAF Tank Museum, dedicated to showcasing a collection of military tanks and related artifacts from the 16th century to the present. For a range of hands-on exhibits and live demos related to the STEM field, travelers can visit the Danville Science Center, which includes a butterfly garden from April to October.

Danville is home to a number of breweries and wineries for visitors to enjoy, including Ballad Brewing, a craft brewery producing delicious local IPAs and ales. For upscale entrees and waterfront views, visitors can head to Cotton at Riverside Mill on the banks of the Dan River.