The story of America’s civil rights journey didn’t end in the 1960s.
When people think of the civil rights movement, they think about something that happened in the past. But as these five civil rights ambassadors will attest, the movement is far from over. They have made it their mission to continue telling the stories of the past in the hope those stories will influence the future.
Rosa Parks Museum, Montgomery, Alabama
Madeline Burkhardt started her job as adult education coordinator and curator at the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, right out of college, not knowing “anything about the civil rights movement,” she said. It wasn’t until she met Robert and Jean Graetz through her church that she became inspired to learn about it. The couple were Rosa Parks’ neighbors and very active in the civil rights movement. Jean, in particular, was one of Burkhardt’s primary motivators, inspiring her to attend marches and protests, including a fight in her small hometown to get a Civil War monument removed.
“She would tell you you weren’t doing enough,” Burkhardt said. “She was arrested later on for protesting. If she is telling you you aren’t doing enough, you step up a little bit.”
As curator for the museum, Burkhardt has taken some risks in the types of exhibits she displays with the goal of raising social consciousness and encouraging cultural appreciation and acceptance. In December, a new exhibit will go on display commemorating the anniversary of Parks’ arrest.
Burkhardt has allowed artists to display everything from a bloodied Ku Klux Klan robe, which former Georgia Rep. John Lewis said was one of the most impactive displays he had ever seen, to an AR-15 made out of human bone. The museum sits on the site where Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat for a white passenger and move to the back of a public bus. The museum’s permanent exhibits tell her story, focusing on the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and their place in the civil rights movement.
Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center, St. Augustine, Florida
Kimberlyn Elliott serves as associate director of the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center in St. Augustine, Florida. Her first real exposure to the civil rights movement was studying African American history at the Florida A & M University in Tallahassee.
“I took the classes specified in that area,” she said. “They really stressed the importance of history but that things are not static. Everything is related to where we are today.”
Elliott said she treasured being able to meet and interview the individuals who were active in the Tallahassee civil rights movement because speaking with people about that history is much more inspiring than reading a book or an article about it.
There was a large civil rights movement in St. Augustine, and there are still residents living in Lincolnville, a Reconstruction-era neighborhood built in 1866 by freed men and women and Black former soldiers who settled there after the war and were part of that movement. Elliott is in charge of programming at the museum. Over the past year, the museum partnered with many organizations to develop virtual lectures, events and museum exhibits around the topic Resilience Black Heritage in St. Augustine.
Many of these groups initially didn’t believe they had anything representing Black history in their collections, but once they started looking, they realized they all had some connection. The city, founded in 1565, “is the birthplace of African American history,” Elliott said. “St. Augustine was quite a diverse place: European, indigenous people, people from African tribes. It is not just like a two-dimensional experience.”
GMc+Co. Strategic Communications, New Orleans
A strategic communications and advertising specialist for 34 years, Glenda McKinley of New Orleans got her first taste of the civil rights movement from her parents.
McKinley’s father was a beloved radio personality and music promoter who moved to New Orleans from Chicago in 1954.
“He was on his internship, assigned to cover a Martin Luther King speech,” McKinley said. “I remember him saying after he covered that speech that he wanted to stay here and be a part of history.” Her father created pathways for the movement to organize and to get financing by using his ties in the music business to gain support from the likes of Louis Armstrong.
McKinley said it was an oppressive era for Black people, but her parents and their compatriots were also strong, determined and courageous to fight for their rights.
“They knew it was wrong,” she said. “They felt it in every fiber of their being it was wrong. These Southern states were not allowing us to enjoy those freedoms. They did what they had to do to make it happen.”
In 2008, McKinley helped Louisiana Travel develop the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail. Because of that work, she was brought onboard to help develop Louisiana’s Civil Rights Trail, which focuses on the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The effort began by hosting 22 meetings across Louisiana to find personal stories and experiences from the civil rights era.
“We didn’t really have the right to tell the story or interpret the story when there are so many people who were active in the civil rights movement who are still alive and could tell their story,” she said. “I wanted that to come through. I wanted all the work we did to really pay tribute to the men, women, young, old, Black and white who risked it all to make rights real.”
Dawn Dawson House
WeGOJA Foundation, Columbia, South Carolina
The WeGOJA Foundation raises money to help the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission identify and document historic sites.
“Because the volume of that is so big and the story is so compelling, we do promotion and incorporate that history of South Carolina in our schools, travel and in the decisions we make,” said Dawn Dawson House, executive director of the foundation. “Civil rights is a huge part of that. The state of South Carolina is just now beginning to identify civil rights as a preservation effort they need to invest in.”
WeGOJA has helped tell these stories through thegreenbookofsc.com, an online travel guide that was named after the Negro Motorist Green Books of the 1960s, when “segregation was big and travel terrible for African Americans.”
Anyone wanting to follow the trail can search different keywords to find more than 100 places in the state associated with the civil rights movement, including churches, monuments, sites where violent attacks occurred and historic homes of people integral to the civil rights movement.
“I think that defining moments in our history tend to traumatize us,” Dawson House said. “We need to move away one generation to learn their value. That is the case for the Civil War and Jim Crow and the KKK and is the case for civil rights. We were a hotbed for a lot of things that led to the civil rights crisis in this nation.”
Dawson House’s mission is to make sure Black history is entrenched in the state’s tourism. She hopes that in the next 15 years her organization will get “so large that people will want to get involved, contribute money, save this history and tell it,” she said. “Not only does it improve tourism in South Carolina, in my opinion it is to improve our quality of life, give us an understanding of where we are and give us lessons on how to move forward.”
Natalie Pass Miller
Historic Magnolia House, Greensboro, North Carolina
North Carolina native Natalie Pass Miller has deep family ties to the state’s various civil rights triumphs. She is the great-granddaughter of Jefferson Davis Diggs, one of the founders of Winston Salem State University; the niece of Samuel Penn, the first Black police officer in Greensboro, who formed the first group of Black officers in the 1950s; and cousin to David Richmond, one of the Greensboro Four who participated in the Woolworth Sit-In in 1960 that kicked off America’s sit-in movement.
Her father purchased the Historic Magnolia House, a former Green Book guesthouse, in 1996. The house was a popular destination and safe haven for African American travelers who had difficulty finding places to stay in the era of segregation. The house was featured in the Negro Motorist Green Book six times and was a favorite stop for many celebrities, including James Brown, Louis Armstrong and Tina Turner.
After her father passed, Miller became owner of the property and has made it her mission to save these pieces of Black history. She oversaw the remainder of the property’s restoration and relaunch while serving as an advocate for public education about the history and impact of the Green Book.
Miller founded the Historic Magnolia Foundation in 2018 to develop educational resources and programs to preserve Green Book history. The guesthouse recently reopened to the public for the first time in 50 years. It has four guest rooms that each pay tribute to famous Black men and women who paved the way for others in their respective fields, from music to baseball.