EXPLORING THE NEW U S CIVIL RIGHTS TRAIL
FOLLOW THE EPIC STRUGGLE FOR AFRICAN-AMERICAN EQUAL RIGHTS
When you head out on America’s new U S Civil Rights Trail you are embarking on a trip back into a battle of great courage and dedication against appalling inhumanity, discovered writers Lindsay Sutton and Mary Moore Mason.
Launched in the 50th anniversary year of the assassination of the Nobel Prizewinning Civil Rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr, it is, in fact, not a trail at all but a collection of about 100 key sites where African-Americans battled for the right to vote, attend good schools, sit where they wished on public buses and eat where they wished in public places.
As the sites are located in 14 states – most of them in the South, but as far afield as Kansas, Missouri and Delaware – one of the easiest ways to discover their historic and emotional significance is to focus on those associated with the life of Dr King himself, beginning at the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia.
Set in the traditionally African-American Sweet Auburn neighbourhood, it encompasses King’s boyhood home, Ebenezer Baptist Church where both he and his father were pastors, a museum dedicated to the international Civil Rights movement, a statue to that great proponent of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, and the marble tomb of King and his wife, Coretta. His epitaph poignantly reads: “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty I’m Free at last.”
Head 160 miles south-west on Interstate 85 and you come to Montgomery, Alabama, site of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where its pastor, Dr King, was involved with the planning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and where he sheltered Freedom Riders from white mobs that had congregated outside. Ironically, it’s just 100 yards from the entrance to Alabama’s State Capitol where the Southern states made the decision in 1861 to form their own break-away Confederate States of America, thus lighting the fuse of the American Civil War, which was largely, although not exclusively, fought over slavery.
Also in Montgomery are a museum dedicated to Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white passenger – and subsequent arrest for ‘civic disobedience’ – inspired the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott,
A STATUE OF DR KING WAS ERECTED IN WASHINGTON, DC’S WEST POTOMAC PARK IN 2011. INSPIRED BY A QUOTE IN HIS SPEECH – “OUT OF THE MOUNTAIN OF DESPAIR, A STONE OF HOPE” – IT DEPICTS KING EMERGING FROM A MASSIVE BLOCK OF STONE.
and a Civil Rights Memorial to those who died in the Civil Rights struggle between 1954 and 1968.
Montgomery was also the planned destination for a peaceful march for voting rights from Selma, 54 miles to the west, in March 1965. However, the marchers first had to cross Selma’s now iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they were brutally attacked by police and vicious dogs in what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, so vividly depicted in the 2014 film Selma. Eventually, in a third march, 25,000 people reached the State Capitol on March 25.
An important stop on the 242-mile drive back from Montgomery to Atlanta via I-65/I-20 is Birmingham, where Dr King was jailed for his Civil Rights activities. It is also home to 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young black girls were killed in a Ku Klux Klan bomb attack on September 15, 1963. There’s more to be learned at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
To follow other key moments in Dr King’s life, shift to the U S capital, Washington, DC, where he made his dramatic “I have a dream speech” on August 28, 1963, on the steps of the memorial to President Abraham Lincoln, who emancipated the slaves. A statue of Dr King was erected in nearby West Potomac Park in 2011. Inspired by a quote in his speech – “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope” – it depicts King emerging from a massive block of stone.
Other Civil Rights sites of note in the city include the US Supreme Court building, where the 1954 ruling was made outlawing public school racial segregation, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
For the final phase of Dr King’s life – and a significant trail site – continue to Memphis, Tennessee. There on April
4, 1968, the Civil Rights leader was assassinated while in town to support striking black sanitation workers. You can view the cordoned-off bedroom in the Lorraine Motel where he slept the night before he stepped out on its balcony and was mowed down by sniper James Earl Ray. Speculations about the real motive and people behind the assassination continue to this day.
In the adjacent National Civil Rights Museum you learn about such things as the voting rights Freedom Riders, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the student sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters.
From Memphis, I-55 heads 212 miles south to Jackson, the capital of Mississippi and home to two new museums – one dedicated to state history and the other to Civil Rights. When President Trump arrived on December 9, 2017 for its opening, it was boycotted by the local mayor, some Congressmen and Civil Rights leaders because they felt the President’s policies were disrespectful to what the museum represented. However, Myrlie Evers, the widow of the assassinated local Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, remained to make a powerful, dignified speech welcoming the museums. (The Evers home is now a museum and his death was a potent backdrop to the 2011 film The Help.)
An alternative way to travel back to Memphis is via Route 61, which runs through the lush, rural Mississippi Riverside Delta country where there are a number of noteworthy museums and sites devoted to the African-American Blues music, which evolved from the area.
Near Cleveland you can also visit the site of Mound Bayou, an experimental community where late-19th and early20th century African-Americans developed a cooperative farming community. It also has associations with the late, great Civil Rights activist Fanny Lee Hamer who told Democrat Party Convention delegates in Chicago in 1964: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” of the ongoing plight of her fellow African-Americans.
Although there is still some distance to go before all of Ms Hamer’s aspirations are met, the Civil Rights Trail will at least remind us of the courage of those who fought for Civil Rights, the progress that has been made and what still needs to be done.