A Historical Tour of the Civil Rights MovementPhoto: "Homage to King" at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta. Photo by Garrett Martin. Travel Lists Civil Rights
Until the last few decades, history museums in the South generally focused on one thing: the Civil War, and primarily how it impacted white people. We’re over 20 years into the 21st century and America still refuses to fully grapple with its deplorable racial history; in fact overt racism and hate crimes have risen sharply over the last several years, and a movement to ban “Critical Race Theory” is trying to cut off any examination of America’s racist past in our public schools. It’s absolutely crucial that we remember the worst things our ancestors did so that we don’t repeat them in the future, and we’re barely talking “ancestors” here: if you’re a Southerner in your teens or older, you had a parent or grandparent who was alive during the civil unrest of the 1960s. The Civil War might have been 160 years ago, but the civil rights movement is in our very recent past, and Black Americans are still fighting for their rights today, as legislators throughout the country try to make it harder for them to vote.
The struggle persists, but at least much has changed about how we study and teach our past. Fortunately there’s been a concerted effort the last few decades to commemorate the civil rights movement for what it was and what it remains to be. Museums and monuments have been built throughout the South to tell the story of those who faced violence and oppression for their most basic rights, and they continue to flourish even as Confederate statues topple throughout the nation. History might be under fire in public schools, but our public history is better rounded and more comprehensive today than it was just 30 years ago.
The best time to learn about our past is always right now, so let’s look at some of the institutions and monuments that are helping to tell that story to the public today, starting with the home of Martin Luther King Jr.
1. Atlanta, Ga.
Atlanta has never been big on preserving its history. That might be one reason the National Register of Historic Places moved relatively quickly after King’s assassination to create the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District, which is now known as the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park. Added to the register in 1974, the district includes the Atlanta neighborhood that King grew up in, with Ebenezer Baptist Church, King’s birth home, and his final resting place all found within its boundaries. It’s also home to the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, a non-profit devoted to spreading King’s philosophies throughout the world. Over time the district expanded, and was designated a national historic landmark in 1977 and a national historic site in 1980. It was finally recognized as a national historic park in 2018 after a long campaign by John Lewis, the Atlanta Congressman who worked alongside King in the ‘60s. The park celebrates King’s life and teachings while also preserving a part of Atlanta’s historic Sweet Auburn neighborhood, which became the center of Black Atlanta after the race riots of 1906, and was once one of the most prosperous Black neighborhoods in the country. At the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park you’ll learn about the man himself, his family and upbringing, and how he became the country’s greatest champion for civil rights, and can pay your own personal tribute to his legacy at his grave and memorial.
A relatively new museum located next to Centennial Olympic Park, the National Center for Civil Human Rights opened in 2014, after over a decade of planning and outreach by civil rights leaders Evelyn Lowery, Juanita Abernathy, Andrew Young (who was Atlanta’s mayor throughout the 1980s), and John Lewis. The center’s main exhibit tracks the rise of the civil rights movement, from the violence of the Jim Crow-era South through the turbulent era of desegregation and the mass movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Another permanent exhibit tracks how the American civil rights movement relates to the larger global struggle for human rights, while a third features various personal effects of King’s. It’s a sobering look at the hatred and oppression that defined so much of American history in the 20th century, and the inspiring story of those who fought to make things better. Its proximity to Centennial Park, where you can also visit the World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium, is as succinct a summary of Atlanta’s unique nature as you’ll find anywhere in the city; in this cluster of museums and tourist sites you’ll find a corporate hagiography devoted to a soda company, an aquarium that’s at least as interested in plugging Home Depot as it is in studying and preserving animal life, a park best known for an act of Christian terrorism during the corporate excess of the Olympics, and, most recently, a serious, clear-eyed portrayal of how colossally inhumane our society has been. Three parts corporate synergy to two parts shameful history: that’s the recipe for the Atlanta of today.
2. Montgomery, Ala.
Alabama probably has more civil rights museums and memorials than any other state. Montgomery alone has 12 entries on the United States Civil Rights Trail. It’s worth a stay to see them all, but if you have to prioritize, you should start at The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. Opened in 2018 by the Equal Justice Initiative, and based in a former slave market, the Legacy Museum is an unflinching examination of the violence and inhumanity that preserved America’s racist system. Its exhibits depict the suffering of slavery, the terror of lynching throughout the South between the Civil War and the civil rights movement, and how modern mass incarceration preserves the spirit of slavery under a legal guise. The Legacy Museum presents the crucial backstory of why a civil rights movement was necessary, which is why it should be your first stop in Montgomery.
Before leaving The Legacy Museum, pay your respects at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Also maintained by the Equal Justice Initiative, it memorializes almost 4400 victims of racially-motivated lynching, with over 800 coffin-shaped steel structures bearing their names suspended from above. It’s elegantly designed and absolutely devastating.
Next you should visit the Rosa Parks Museum, which lies on the same spot where Parks was arrested in 1955. The museum chronicles the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and 1956, which was incited by Parks’ arrest and led to the Supreme Court determining that Alabama’s bus segregation laws were unconstitutional. This wasn’t the first civil rights protest in America, but it was the galvanizing event that sparked the movement that changed America.
If that’s not enough bus action for you, you should stop by the Freedom Rides Museum, which is based in the former Greyhound bus station where Black and white Freedom Riders were attacked by Alabama residents during the 1961 Freedom Ride. The museum pays tribute to those riders and the violence they faced while traveling throughout Alabama that May.
While in Montgomery you should consider paying your respects at the Civil Rights Memorial Center. Designed by Maya Lin, who also gave us the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the centerpiece is a granite fountain inscribed with a timeline of the movement from 1955 to 1968 and the names of 41 activists who lost their lives during that time. Like the Vietnam memorial, it’s a stark monument to those we’ve lost.
Finally, stop by the Alabama State Capitol, from whose steps King addressed over 25,000 protesters in March 1965 after marching from Selma. In a speech popularly known as “How Long, Not Long,” King quoted a 19th century abolitionist when he declared “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s one of King’s most powerful and celebrated speeches, capping off one of the most tumultuous months of the entire movement.
3. Selma, Ala.
West of Montgomery you’ll find Selma, a once-thriving small Southern city best known today for its pivotal role in the civil rights movement. In March 1965 the SCLC tried to lead three marches from Selma to Montgomery in protest of Alabama’s systematic denial of Black voting rights. The first march was met with violence from Alabama state troopers, with photographs of organizers being beaten and gassed by the cops bringing worldwide attention to the marches. Without these marches exposing voting rights discrimination in Alabama, and the level of violence the state would go to to preserve it, the Voting Rights Act might not have passed in 1965. Today in Selma you can visit the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a national historic landmark where activists were beaten on what is now known as Bloody Sunday. The Selma Interpretive Center welcomes guests to the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, the 54-mile stretch of road that protestors marched down in March 1965. The Lowndes Interpretive Center has an exhibit that details the challenges and violence faced by the protestors during the time of the marches, and the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute covers the struggle for free and fair elections that inspired the marches.
4. Birmingham, Ala.
Like Montgomery and Selma, Birmingham’s civil rights legacy is as significant as it is tragic. Located within the six blocks of the Birmingham Civil Rights District, the 16th Street Baptist Church was the site of one of the saddest and most despicable tragedies of the civil rights movement. In September 1963 four Klansmen bombed the church, killing four girls aged 11 to 14—Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—and injuring over a dozen others. Today you can tour the historic church, which was the first Black church in Birmingham in the 19th century, and pay your respects at the Welsh Window, a stained-glass memorial to the victims installed in 1965.
Outside the church you can stroll through Kelly Ingram Park, where civil rights activists often met in the ‘50s and ‘60s. During a May 1963 protest made up largely of students and children, authorities unleashed both fire hoses and dogs against the young activists, a shocking image that helped spread awareness of and sympathy for the civil rights movement. Today the park is home to a collection of sculptures that pay tribute to civil rights leaders and depict the violence inflicted upon protestors. Among the statues is Elizabeth MacQueen’s Four Spirits, which memorializes the four young girls who lost their lives at the nearby church. The sculpture garden at Kelly Ingram Park is a stark and sobering look into what the people of Birmingham had to endure to earn what they were already legally and morally entitled to.
The centerpiece of the Birmingham Civil Rights District is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Established in 1992, the museum looks back on the city’s civil rights history, focusing not just on the activism and turmoil of the ‘50s and ‘60s, but also what daily life under segregation was like. It also has a large archive of documents from the era, and hosts an Oral History Project that lets the people who lived the struggle discuss it in their own words. It’s simply one of the best and most informative civil rights museums in the country.
5. Memphis, Tenn.
Memphis is a crucial hotbed of Black culture in America, and one of the most important cities in the history of American music. You can immerse yourself in that history at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music or on Beale Street, where you’ll also find echoes of an important chapter in civil rights history. The Memphis sanitation strike of 1968 saw over 1,300 Black sanitation workers go on strike for better pay and safer conditions, and Beale Street was one of the sites of their protests. That strike brought Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, where he gave one of his most famous speeches, commonly known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, on April 3, 1968. It was the last speech he would ever give.
The next day King was assassinated outside his room at the Lorraine Motel. Today the Lorraine makes up the core of the National Civil Rights Museum, which is devoted not just to the civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s but to the long fight for equality that stretches back to the earliest days of slavery in the American colonies. The museum brings that struggle to life in a comprehensive overview of America’s civil rights history, while letting guests reflect on the life and loss of that movement’s greatest leader on the site where he was murdered.
Before leaving Memphis, head to the Clayborn Temple, which the striking sanitation workers made their headquarters in 1968, and gaze on I AM A MAN Plaza. That rallying cry and motto for the sanitation workers in 1968 is recreated in huge letters, with the names of the workers engraved upon them. It’s a reminder that, as tragic as the passing of one man was, the movement in Memphis and elsewhere was always bigger than any single individual.
6. Washington, D.C.
Since 2011 a 30 foot figure of Martin Luther King has gazed out at the Tidal Basin on the National Mall, materializing from a solid chunk of granite just steps away from where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. With its size and stature the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is a fitting tribute to the man’s legacy, but it leaves unsaid the depths of the struggle that faced everybody who protested for civil rights alongside him.
For a more informative look at the civil rights movement, and how it’s impacted America since King’s assassination in 1968, head to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is part of the Smithsonian. Civil rights is just one part of its focus—it aims to sum up nothing short of the entire African-American experience since Africans were first brought here in bondage—but you can learn about the fight for equality in the Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom exhibit, which examines Black history from the end of Reconstruction to King’s assassination, and see what has become of the movement over the last 50 years in the exhibit A Changing America. The museum also has a sizable collection of documents from the civil rights era in its archives, if you’re up for some research.
Of course there’s far more to America’s civil rights history than what happened in these six cities, from the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, to Neil Humphrey’s “wade-ins” on the beaches of Sarasota. If you live in a Southern state, you are within a reasonable drive of a crucial bit of civil rights history. It’s our obligation to remember the past in hopes of making a better future, and there’s no better time to learn about this enduring fight for justice than today. For a far more detailed list of historical sites from the civil rights movement, visit the website for the United States Civil Rights Trail.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about travel, comedy, games, and more. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.