Civil Rights Trail Links 130 Landmarks

Visitors can literally walk in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, John Lewis and other African American activists, thanks to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail that launches on King’s birthday.

For the first time, Southern tourism departments have worked together to link the country’s most important civil rights sitesmore than 130 landmarks, including museums, churches, courthouses and memorials that were pivotal to the advancement of social equality during the volatile 1950s and 1960s.

Famous sites such as the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, the Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth’s, where sit-ins began, the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., and King’s birthplace in Atlanta, Ga., are anchors.

Two years ago when National Park Service director Jonathon Jarvis challenged historians to inventory surviving civil rights landmarks, Georgia State University found 60, which became the foundation of the trail, said West Virginia tourism commissioner Chelsea Ruby.. The 12 state tourism agencies known collectively as TravelSouth USA supplemented the list with other worthy sites, she said.

“We feel that the trail will encourage Americans to better understand their history,” said TravelSouth President Liz Bittner. Several British tour companies have added civil rights destinations to their travel plans since being briefed on the trail in London two months ago, she said.

The website civilrightstrail.com profiles the landmarks and offers an interactive map, interviews with foot soldiers, past and present photographs and 360-degree video as special features.

The trail stretches from schools in Topeka, Kan., known for the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation court decision in 1954, to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. where thousands rallied for equal opportunity in 1963. Because of the impact of the movement on other parts of the globe, the marketing phrase is “What happened here changed the world.”

Places where blacks died at the hands of opponents to school desegregation are featured. The Sumner, Miss., courthouse, where two white men charged with murdering 14-year-old Emmett Till walked free in 1955, has been restored, as is the home where voting-rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963 in Jackson, Miss., hours after President John Kennedy proposed major civil rights legislation. The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four girls died in a Sunday morning bombing in 1963 after federal courts ordered local schools integrated, remains an active church. The Neshoba County Courthouse in Philadelphia, Miss., where conspirators were convicted in 1964 for the deaths of three voting-rights workers in the “Mississippi Burning” case, made the list.

Less known sites include the birthplace of Whitney Young in Simpsonville, Ky., the Elizabeth Harden Gilmore House in Charleston, W. Va., and Moton High School in Farmville, Va.  Sixteen-year-old Barbara Johns organized a school strike there in 1951 demanding facilities equal to those of whites, which generated a lawsuit that was consolidated into the Topeka case.

Several sites predate the modern civil rights era, notably St. Louis’s Old Courthouse, where the Dred Scott case originated, the historic Treme neighborhood in New Orleans, the Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beauford, S.C., and museums for the Scottsboro Boys and the Tuskegee Airmen, both in Alabama.

Heritage tourists can learn about Dr. King at numerous locations in Atlanta, including Ebenezer Baptist Church, his birthplace and final resting place, the King Center founded by Coretta Scott King, and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. King’s first church, Dexter Avenue Baptist, where the bus boycott was organized in 1955, and its parsonage, are in Montgomery, Ala.

King’s most famous quotes are linked to specific sites. When King was arrested during the 1963 Easter shopping boycott, he wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” At the end of the Selma to Montgomery March, he famously said, “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The night before his death in Memphis, he said at the Mason Temple, “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

The Memphis museum, which recreates large-scale scenes of notable events of the movement and details the 1968 assassination of King, is recommended, as are four other major museums.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia labored more than 16 years to fund and establish the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened to wide acclaim a year ago in Washington, D.C. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which houses the door to King’s former jail cell, faces the park where fire hoses and dogs were used to terrorize youthful protesters in 1963. Jackson hosts the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, the only one sponsored by a state. Small theaters inside recount the stories of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers. Many of King’s papers are collected at Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

The website civilrightstrail.com offers 360-degree video of landmarks in Memphis, Little Rock, Birmingham, Washington, Atlanta, Topeka, Selma and Montgomery. The website also allows visitors to compare historic photographs with current views of the same scenes in Memphis, Little Rock, Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery, Topeka and Greensboro.

Veteran foot soldiers recount their experiences from a half-century ago on video. Bruce Boynton discusses his 1958 arrest in a Richmond, Va., bus station that led to the Freedom Rides in 1961, and Bernard LaFayette, the roommate of rides organizer John Lewis, recalls being attacked and beaten at the bus station in Montgomery.

Lunch counter sit-in protest veteran R. Tyrone Patterson, Sr. remembers Greensboro and Bernard LaFayette recounts the events in Nashville. Pastor Arthur Price Jr. talks about the history of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and tour guide Wanda Howard Battle sings inside Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery.

Sybil Jordan Hampton of Little Rock, Katherine Sawyer of Topeka and Dorothy Lockett Holcomb of Farmville discuss their experiences during school integration after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education court decision. Betty Strong Boynton recalls her experience as a young girl involved in the Selma marches. Leslie Burl McLemore talks about fighting for democracy in Jackson, Miss., and David L. Jordan remembers the Emmett Till trial.

Since tourism industry media were briefed on the trail, The New York Post and The Rough Guides in Europe named the sites among must-see destinations in 2018. Articles have appeared in The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, The Wall Street Journal and The Telegraph in London. Full-page ads are appearing in Time, Smithsonian, National Geographic and SCLC, officials said.