There are few American stories more compelling than those of the civil rights movement.
Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, activists, faith leaders, educators, students and everyday citizens fought long odds and entrenched opposition in an effort to secure equality, respect, voting rights and more. The stories of their struggles, sacrifices and victories reverberate in historic sites and cultural institutions around the country. And they are being told in a variety of new and innovative ways by members of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.
The U.S. Civil Rights Trail is a cooperative effort to showcase more than 140 historic sites, churches, museums and other places of interest integral to the civil rights movement. The trail stretches from Topeka, Kansas, to Wilmington, Delaware, to Sarasota, Florida.
Since its launch in 2018, the trail has become one of the most admired initiatives in historic and cultural tourism, capturing worldwide media attention and winning wide acclaim. Now, five years since its inception, the trail’s leaders are finding new and more engaging ways to tell its captivating stories.
Telling Personal Stories
For many travelers, a civil rights journey begins with research. To make that research more informative and inspiring, the U.S. Civil Rights Trail Alliance launched a new version of its website, civilrightstrail.com, in February.
“We’re really excited about the new site,” said Liz Bittner, managing director of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail Marketing Alliance. “It offers more storytelling around the foot soldiers of the movement. There’s also some beautiful photography we have gone out and shot. It absolutely conveys the feelings and experiences you can get by visiting the sites on the trail.”
Capturing and telling first-person stories from foot soldiers and others involved in the civil rights movement is taking on increasing importance as time goes on. Since the events took place in the 1950s and ’60s, participants who were teenagers at the time are now reaching later stages of life.
“It has been 60-plus years, so capturing their stories is definitely on a final countdown,” Bittner said. “So in addition to our website and videos, that’s why we have launched a whole series of podcasts that have been wildly successful. They have allowed a great number of first-person stories to be told. If we don’t get the stories now, we’ll never get them.”
Spotlight on Education
In addition to launching the new website, the trail alliance is working on highlighting the importance of education in the civil rights movement and commemorating the role that educators and others played in ending school segregation and preparing Black children for the future.
“Next year will be the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision,” Bittner said. “In addition to the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, there were a number of other schools that were very instrumental in desegregation — places like Central High School in Little Rock and the William Frantz school in Louisiana. There’s a site in Orangeburg, South Carolina, that we’re working toward having on the trail. It gives them a network to connect to the whole conversation around school segregation. That’s one of the things that makes the trail really exciting.”
In addition to showcasing education-related sites, the trail alliance is also working on initiatives to better fund, restore and preserve significant historic places, many of which are too often overlooked.
“We’re looking to elevate some of the existing sites to be national historic sites through the National Park Service,” Bittner said. “That changes the ability to protect those sites in the long term. That can include places like the Medgar Evers site in Mississippi. Many of those sites struggle with funding. And even for the well-funded, well-loved ones, having so many visitors is hard on those buildings, because many of them weren’t built as museums. We work on marketing these sites and telling their stories. But we would be remiss if we didn’t also offset with that with protection and funding.”
A Growing Audience
From launching the new website to adding trail sites and pursuing NPS status, the goal of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail remains the same — to expose more people around the world to the incredible stories of America’s civil rights movement.
“We’d like to see visitation to the sites continue to grow,” Bittner said. “There are some initiatives to build in more guide services and more storytelling docents available in the communities where the sites are. Whether it’s schoolchildren or older adults who are in a learning mode, or a general family that’s visiting, it’s one thing to look at a building. But it’s a much more moving experience if someone explains the story to you. They can talk about the people and touch your soul. We need people to do that.”
Bittner said the alliance also plans to continue its efforts to see some of the country’s most significant civil rights destinations inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, with hopes that it will happen in 2024.
That global recognition would help amplify the trail’s key message: that America’s civil rights story is for everyone.
“It’s not just an African American story,” Bittner said. “It’s important for all of humanity. And when you’re visiting Atlanta, Selma, Little Rock or Topeka, it absolutely doesn’t matter what you came for. These sites are worth a visit.”
Travelers planning a trip on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail can find all the latest news about civil rights sites and events at civilrightstrail.com.