Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published in February 2021.
“We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”
― Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The fight for civil rights during the 1950s and 1960s is such a large part of the American narrative that the earlier struggles for racial equality may not be fully appreciated. This is especially true when looking at civil rights through the lens of the Black Lives Matter protests.
To understand what the civil rights movement accomplished, you must walk in the footsteps of those who fought for freedom and experience the civil rights struggle where history was made.
The U.S. Civil Rights Trail was created in 2018 to preserve and share the history of one of the most transformative times in America’s story. The trail crosses 15 predominantly Southern states and Washington, D.C., where pivotal battles for civil rights took place.
The trail is expansive; you will need to travel by road, rail or plane to begin your historical experiences. There are more than 100 locations from Kansas to Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and up through the Carolinas to Delaware, where you can explore and experience key moments in the civil rights movement.
Here are just a few noteworthy destinations to consider on your Civil Rights Trail journey.
Birmingham is credited for the rise of the civil rights movement because of a crucial event on Sept. 15, 1963: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
The explosion killed four young Black girls who were attending Sunday school. Ironically, the Sunday school lesson that day was titled, “A Love That Forgives.”
The church bombing, which occurred three weeks after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., rocked the nation and galvanized civil rights activists.
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Today, the 16th Street Baptist Church remains an active church, and its basement is a museum that honors the four little girls. The museum also tells the church’s story from its establishment in 1873. Its centerpiece is the Experience Room, which contains a clock that stopped at 10:22 a.m. — the exact time of the blast.
Directly across from the church are two other stops on the Civil Rights Trail: the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is a modern museum dedicated to maintaining the story of the civil rights movement in Birmingham and Alabama. The Institute houses many artifacts, including the door of the jail cell that held Martin Luther King Jr.
Kelly Ingram Park was a staging area for numerous demonstrations in Birmingham led by King, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and others.
Today, the park is a sculpture garden that displays powerful artwork to tell emotionally charged stories about Birmingham’s civil rights movement.
Other Civil Rights Trail markers in Alabama include the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma — the site of “Bloody Sunday,” the brutal beatings of voting rights marchers.
The bridge was named after the former Confederate brigadier general, U.S. senator and head of Alabama’s Ku Klux Klan, and it remains a vivid reminder of Jim Crow. Recently, the remains of civil rights icon John Lewis were carried across this same structure where he nearly lost his life on Bloody Sunday.
In Montgomery, you’ll find the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The memorial displays 805 hanging steel rectangles representing counties in the United States where a lynching was documented.
Also in Montgomery, a museum dedicated to Rosa Parks sits at the site of her famed arrest on the bus.
The historic Treme neighborhood in New Orleans, recently made famous by an HBO series of the same name, is on the Civil Rights Trail.
Treme is the country’s oldest African American neighborhood. It’s also a neighborhood where free people of color could purchase land during the 18th and 19th centuries when the country was still immersed in slavery.
Many museums are dedicated to African American life and culture. Just steps from the French Quarter, Louis Armstrong Park is a public park that honors the jazz great.
A stop along the Civil Rights Trail in Atlanta showcases the birthplace and burial grounds of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Travelers can visit King’s childhood home and pay respects to him at his burial site at the King Center.
You can follow the Freedom Trail, which recognizes people and places that had a significant role in the civil rights movement. It was created in 2011 to provide a roadmap to Mississippi’s civil rights history.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson is the only museum in the state that covers the entire civil rights movement. Opened in 2017, it offers particular attention to the murders of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till.
Near the banks of Mississippi sits the National Civil Rights Museum at the former Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Clinton High School in Clinton, Tennessee, is also an important site. It commemorates the Clinton 12 — a group of African American students — who attended their first day of class on Aug. 26, 1956, following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education.
While Clinton High School became the first public high school in the South to be integrated, it was not a smooth transition with protesters and riots, and the school was bombed after hours a year later.
The Clinton 12 are commemorated with life-size bronze statues that stand in front of the Green McAdoo Cultural Center in town.
A newer addition to the Civil Rights Trail is the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History, which is significant to the Civil War, as well as the Civil Rights movement.
This Danville site joins Farmville and Richmond as one of three designated trail sites in Virginia. Known as “the last capital of the Confederacy” in the 1960s, Danville was home to some of the most violent clashes in Civil Rights history.
The Confederate mansion, turned public library, is now the Museum, and in 1960 a group of protesters staged a sit-in at the library. Rather than admit Black visitors, Danville officials chose to close the library.
Other demonstrations for racial equality followed, and all were met with strong resistance, with the summer of 1963 being the worst of the clashes.
The District of Columbia was not a battleground in the struggle for civil rights. However, there were fights for civil rights that took place in the U.S. Supreme Court, most notably the seminal decision in Brown vs. Board of Education that made school segregation illegal.
The Lincoln Memorial is also where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington — one of the largest human rights protests in American history. There is a marble marker on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where King stood.
You’ll find the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the National Museum of African American History and Culture along the National Mall. This Smithsonian museum is the only national museum dedicated entirely to the African American experience.
There are notable monuments, museums and markers in other states along the Civil Rights Trail that shouldn’t be overlooked. Missouri, Kansas, the Carolinas, Delaware, Florida, Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia all played an important role in the civil rights struggles.
The Civil Rights Trail continues to grow because new destinations and attractions are constantly added.
It is worth retracing the path of “good trouble” to appreciate what leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis accomplished. We must experience the lessons of the past so they can be preserved for the future.