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The U.S. Civil Rights Trail Debuts

More than 65 years after it began, one of the most powerful social and political movements in American history is getting new recognition on the national stage.

In January, directors of 12 Southern state travel offices unveiled the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, a collection of churches, courthouses, schools, museums and other landmarks where activists challenged racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. The trail encompasses 100 sites stretching from Kansas to Louisiana, Virginia and Georgia. Though many of these sites have long been recognized for their historical significance, this effort marks the first time such a large collection has been identified and organized for travelers to discover.

“It’s really the first time that we’ve had all of the states that were involved in the civil rights movement working together to present all our sites and make it easy for visitors to discover the full picture of the movement through the places where it happened,” said Kevin Langston, deputy commissioner of tourism development for the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “Places are powerful, and experiencing a place where history was made is a really immersive experience. Being there makes it easy to relate to history on a personal level.”

History Happened Here

Many of the stops on the trail are important places where events that grabbed national attention and propelled the cause of civil rights took place. In Alabama, these include Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, the site of numerous marches and demonstrations, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where violence erupted in a march that became known as Bloody Sunday. Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, was the site of a tense integration standoff in 1957 and is also on the trail. Several sites related to Martin Luther King Jr. are as well, including his first church in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was assassinated.

Grouping significant civil rights landmarks together helps the public to understand and discover the movement, including some lesser-known sites that don’t get much national visibility.

“Many of these 100 sites are essentially silos within their communities,” said Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department and one the chief visionaries behind the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. “What we are doing is putting a spotlight on these sites, most of which don’t have any kind of marketing budget. The idea is to give them greater visibility and generate more foot traffic to these churches, schools and museums.”

Organizers also hope the trail will make it easier for travelers to plan itineraries that include visits to various civil rights sites in multiple Southern states.

“If someone is inclined to go to Memphis and see the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. died, and they see this map and learn that there’s a civil rights trail, they’ll be inclined to visit other sites in Tennessee, come over to Arkansas or go to one of the other sites in the South,” said Jim Dailey, tourism director for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.

In addition to the historic sites, the trail also features some of the museums that were created to showcase stories and artifacts from the civil rights movement. These include the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama; the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta; the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, recently opened in Jackson; and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, the newest addition to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

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.