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U.S. Civil Rights Trail Broadens its Reach

The stories of the civil rights movement are timeless. But the organizers of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail are finding new ways to tell them.

The U.S. Civil Rights Trail is a cooperative effort to showcase more than 130 historic sites, churches, museums and other places of interest integral to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The trail stretches from Topeka, Kansas, to Wilmington, Delaware, and Sarasota, Florida. 

Since it launched in 2018, the trail has garnered significant media attention and accolades, including being named one of America’s 50 best road trips in 2022 by Fodor’s Travel. Now, leaders are capitalizing on that exposure to build public interest through a variety of new technologies and storytelling platforms.

‘Different and Deeper Stories’

“We’re trying to adopt as many different channels as we can to communicate different and deeper stories about the movement to inspire people to want to go to the sites,” said Liz Bittner, managing director of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail Marketing Alliance. “It is historic, but we don’t want history to be boring. We want it to be enlightening. Classic storytelling uses different ways of telling stories. So we have a lot of video and audio. We have music and a very robust social media outreach.”

Chief among these efforts is a new marketing campaign called Ordinary Objects, Extraordinary Stories that will combine online videos with print media to showcase little-known items that played pivotal roles in the lives of civil rights pioneers.

“That would be something like John Lewis’ backpack,” Bittner said. “Backpacks are very common now, but in the 1960s they weren’t the norm. Many of the folks who would be at sit-ins or marching knew there was a huge possibility they would get arrested. So they started bringing backpacks along with them. John Lewis’ backpack had some personal toiletry items in case he was going to spend the night in jail.

Other objects of interest in the campaign will include a simple school desk, which is used to illustrate the profound differences in the way Black and white schools were equipped during the Jim Crow era, as well as a bicycle that became a catalyst for Muhammad Ali’s early introduction to boxing.

‘Educational and Interesting’

Along with this campaign, the marketing alliance is producing a series of podcasts that will explore civil rights stories in greater depth. The podcast topics center around the trail’s core pillars, such as education, voting rights, freedom of movement and changing laws. The first episodes launched in January, with more coming out every month this year and focusing on different states.

“I’m super excited about these podcasts,” Bittner said. “For people who like NPR, they’re in that style: educational and interesting at the same time.

“One Louisiana episode, for example, is all about that meeting and organizing places where people met to get their talking points together and figure out what the groups were going to do. Lots of those meetings would take place at church buildings. But it could also have been at a local diner, like Dooky Chase Restaurant in New Orleans.”

Dooky Chase Restaurant is among nine sites in Louisiana that are joining the trail in 2022. Others include the McDonogh 19 Elementary School, the Louisiana Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge and the Camp Beauregard Military Museum in Pineville. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Kansas, is now featured on the trail as well, as is the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History in Danville, Virginia. New additions also include two Tennessee sites: the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville and the Stax Museum in Memphis.

Since music was such an integral part of the civil rights movement and its legacy, the marketing alliance is also promoting songs of the era with playlists on the popular music streaming platform Spotify.

‘A Much Wider Audience’

Bittner said that the goal of these new initiatives is to stoke interest in civil rights history that already exists among the traveling public.

“There’s a high interest around the topic,” she said. “And one of the research studies we did last year found that United States civil rights history isn’t only interesting to historians or African Americans. It’s a much wider audience than many people assume. There’s a high interest level from people who consider themselves cultural travelers.”

For those cultural travelers, learning about the lives of everyday people who played a role in the civil rights movement is just as meaningful as recounting the achievements of nationally known figures. Those unsung heroes will factor prominently in the trail’s messaging.

“Our whole mission is to bring it to life, to have the footsteps of the foot soldiers and tell their stories,” Bittner said. So whether it’s on Spotify or on a podcast, or a YouTube video or a printed magazine, we’re going to bring those stories to life.”

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.