Stops to Make Along the Civil Rights Trail
See where Rosa Parks started a movement and where MLK was born.
The pandemic saw a major shift in the way many Americans look at Black history. The protests of 2020 brought to the forefront the knowledge that the fight for equality, civil rights, and social justice is still an ongoing struggle. Today, as we continue to wrestle with this knowledge and the questions of how to make positive changes, it is only in understanding the past that we can truly comprehend how we got to this point—and how to move forward in a way that’s just for all.
Black history is American history, and no part of our collective past is more important to the fight for freedom and equality than the era that’s known as the Civil Rights movement; from 1954 to 1965, African Americans fought and sometimes died to secure their right to to vote and to receive equal education and treatment under the law and in public spaces. Far from just an American movement, this fight for equality influenced similar struggles around the world.
In 2018, the National Park System honored this fight by creating the Civil Rights Trail, bringing together a collection of over 120 sites across the US, where visitors can respect and better understand these important moments in American history. Here are some of the most iconic sites on the list to plan a trip for yourself.
If you can only visit one place listed on the Civil Rights Trail, Montgomery, Alabama might be the best choice. Montgomery was one of the focal points of conflict during the Civil Rights movement, so you could spend several days here exploring the footsteps of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Freedom Riders. Here, Parks kicked off the Montgomery bus boycott when she famously refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus.
The Rosa Parks Museum talks about the larger context of this important protest, while honoring her memory. Just down the road, the Freedom Rides Museum is housed in the former bus station where a mob attacked a biracial group of young people who had ridden the bus into the city to protest segregation laws. The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor educates visitors on some of the first actions of this legendary leader. Make sure to also stop at the Legacy Museum, which helps tie the injustices of slavery and Jim Crow to the continued fight for social justice. Montgomery is also an excellent launching pad to visit nearby Selma, where you can visit the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of a violent clash between peaceful protesters and police that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” The bridge is frequently visited by important figures past and present, including the late John Lewis and President Barack Obama.
Little Rock, Arkansas
The “Little Rock Nine” was the name given to nine African American high school students who were the first to integrate Central High School in 1957. Though they had to be escorted by the National guard and often faced violent opposition, these brave students continued to attend and eventually graduated from the school. Today visitors can participate in guided tours of the site and a film about its history.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, after being shot on the balcony. The former hotel has now been turned into a museum that details both the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the life and contributions of MLK. It was expanded to include more information about the ongoing struggles for civil rights around the world and the capture, prosecution, and continued controversy around James Earl Ray, who was arrested for King’s murder.
Saint Helena Island, South Carolina
The Penn Center is the site of the former Penn School, the first school for African Americans in the South. Founded in 1862, the school was only open to freed slaves, though three years later—after emancipation—that became all African Americans. The site continued to be a place of resistance well into the modern era, at one point playing host to MLK and serving as an educational site during the Civil Rights movement.
Today there are more than 50 historic buildings to explore on the property, including a church, the original school, and a museum that tells the story of the Penn School, as well as that of the surrounding Gullah community—a distinct African American cultural group in this area. The Center remains committed to the cause of education and community development in the Sea Islands where it’s located.
Medgar Evers was the first field secretary of the NAACP in the state of Mississippi, the highest local leadership position in the organization. Known for his staunch belief in desegregation and equal access to education, Evers was killed in 1963 by a KKK member outside of his home. Today his house is a museum dedicated to Evers’ life and the ongoing struggle for civil rights.
Opened to much fanfare in 2016, this museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution and showcases the history, culture, and achievements of African Americans in the US to date. The exhibitions here attempt to cover the breadth of African American history and culture.
The experience starts in the basement, with artifacts chronicling the horrors of slavery, such as child-sized manacles and letters searching for loved ones who had been sold away. You then move slowly upward to cover moments of resistance, like the Civil Rights movement, and moments of breakthrough, like a collection including Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and Whitney Houston’s dress, to highlight the world renowned sounds of African American musicians.
MLK’s final resting place is at the King Center in the city of Atlanta, where he was born. This center is part of the larger Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park, which includes his birthplace, the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he was ordained, and four other sites of historic significance. The King Center itself, also called Center for Nonviolent Social Change, hosts special events and educational exhibitions about nonviolence and civil rights around the world.