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The U.S. Civil Rights Trail: An Idea for the Ages

The U.S. Civil Rights Trail may be more important now than ever before.

After a year of disease, racial tension, political turmoil and increasing polarization throughout society, America’s civil rights museums and historic sites offer much-needed inspiration. Their stories of unity, struggle and victory over adversity position them well for success in 2021 and beyond.

“I think the unrest and the politics have made civil rights destinations more relevant than ever,” said Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department and chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail Marketing Alliance. “People are going to come South in larger numbers because they want to understand how the United States handled race in the 1960s and learn from that.”

Established in 2018, the U.S. Civil Rights Trail encompasses more than 120 historic sites and landmarks that were significant in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. The trail stretches from Topeka, Kansas, site of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, to places as far east as Wilmington, Delaware, and as far south as Sarasota, Florida. The marketing alliance that oversees the trail consists of representatives from 14 state tourism departments, as well as Destination D.C.; leaders from the National Park Service; and notable civil rights historians.

Now entering its fourth year, the trail seems poised for growth, despite the difficulties of the past 12 months.

‘Widespread acceptance’

When the U.S. Civil Rights Trail launched in 2018, it received wide acclaim and a flurry of positive media coverage. It has added several notable sites in the years since then and continues to garner attention in the United States and abroad.

“The widespread acceptance of the concept of the trail has been a pleasant surprise,” Sentell said. “The great thing is that the Southern states were eager partners from the very beginning. We had interest from portions of other states, particularly Florida, that wanted to make sure their contributions were not overlooked. And as far west as Topeka, Kansas, is enthusiastic about being a partner.”

The marketing alliance maintains an in-depth website — civilrightstrail.com — where visitors can browse an interactive map, see sites on the trail, hear oral histories from civil rights activists and plan their own trip itineraries. Much of the original photography and content from that website is also being packaged into a book. The marketing alliance is in talks with Hudson News, the airport bookstore chain, to distribute the book in airports.

“We have a beautiful website, but people don’t look at websites unless they need particular details,” Sentell said, “so we’ve taken a lot of the best photos from the website and picked 14 cities that have the most civil rights destinations. We’ve summarized why those cities are significant in their own unique ways. Hudson News encouraged us to do the book, and they said it would sell very well.”

Sentell also said the Alabama Tourism Department is in talks with Hudson about rebranding a bookstore at the Birmingham airport as the Civil Rights Trail Market.

“It will carry Southern travel guides as well as biographies of civil rights leaders and histories of the civil rights movement from throughout the South, not just Alabama,” he said.

‘Anticipation is building’

Like travel destinations worldwide, the cities and states along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail were severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. But short-term restrictions haven’t curtailed long-term interest in civil rights tourism.

“Travel has been slowed by the pandemic, but that just means anticipation is building,” Sentell said. “The New York Times Journeys department is now marketing a six-night civil rights tour into the Deep South. The Smithsonian Institution, in cooperation with the African American Museum of History and Culture, is also marketing a six-day tour. And two of the biggest international tour companies — Trafalgar Travel and Abercrombie and Kent — are planning arrivals in October.

“When you have major international companies that are talking to local receptive operators about a significant number on the books for 2022 and 2023, that’s a very encouraging sign,” Sentell said.

Those indications from tour operators align with other signals that tourism officials are picking up from abroad. Sentell reported that America’s civil rights history is a chief area of interest among prospective European travelers, along with American food and music.

“Five years ago, civil rights would not have been on that list,” he said.

Anticipation is also building around new attractions and sites that could be added to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail in the coming year or two.

“There are sites in the pipeline, even places I was not familiar with,” Sentell said. “Within a year or so, the new International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, will be open.”

‘It could happen in two years’

Concurrent with the development of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail has been an effort to have some of its most important places inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This designation would bring a new level of international attention to America’s civil rights stories.

UNESCO’s nomination and inscription process can be very slow, but Sentell believes things are still on track.

“When we started this process, someone told me it would take 10 years,” he said. “Now, I’m starting to believe them.”

The nomination, which is being spearheaded by a team at Georgia State University, will probably include about a dozen key civil rights sites. World Heritage Sites are selected by a committee of representatives from 21 nations, and each nation can make only one nomination a year. There is one other American destination ahead of the civil rights destinations on the U.S. nomination list.

The pandemic has slowed the UNESCO committee’s work, but there is still potential for the inscription to take place relatively soon.

“It could happen in two years,” Sentell said. “UNESCO didn’t have a meeting last year. They usually meet in July. So they’re discussing having last year’s meeting this year in June, and then the 2021 meeting would happen in July, right behind it.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.

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