Road Trips

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Civil Rights Road Trips

Filed Under: Alabama, Memphis

The civil rights movement spawned a generation of leaders who put their lives on the line to fight for equal rights and justice for all. The good side of the struggle ranks among America’s proudest chapters; the ugly side may be our country’s most shameful moment. Taking a road trip through cities at the heart of the civil rights movement offers a chance to feel the history of the movement in a way that no book, movie or song can provide. Here are 5 destinations whose civil rights landmarks showcase the movement’s hard-won rights for us all.

Birmingham, Alabama
Birmingham, AL, is known for one of its most tragic moments: the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, in which 4 young African-American girls were killed. Nearly 6 months before, Martin Luther King Jr., wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he argued, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Visitors can see a replica of the cell at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. You can also imagine the heart of the civil rights struggle on a stroll through the city’s Kelly Ingram Park, where police dogs and fire hoses turned on peaceful marchers; and explore other sites in the Birmingham Civil Rights District central to the civil rights struggle.
Stuart Seeger, flickr
Memphis, Tennessee
Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis, TN, in March 1968 to support a group of sanitation workers on strike for fair pay and better working conditions. He returned on April 3 and gave what would be the final speech of his life, at the Mason Temple. The next day, King was shot while on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel, one of the few integrated hotels in the South at the time. The motel’s owner preserved the room as a memorial to King and, in 1991 part of the property was converted into the Civil Rights Museum. In 2002, the museum expanded to include an exhibit, Exploring the Legacy, which explores never-before-seen evidence surrounding the King assassination.
Thomanication, flickr
Washington, DC
History is inescapable in Washington, DC, where the earliest buildings (White House, US Capitol) were largely built by slave labor. While Congress banned the slave trade within the District in 1850, segregation continued in the city for many generations. Among the city’s civil rights highlights are the Frederick Douglass house, where the ex-slave-turned-abolitionist lived until his death in 1895; a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, who began campaigning for equal rights in the late 1890s; and the National Museum of American History, where visitors can see the famous “whites only” Woolworth’s lunch counter, transplanted from Greensboro, NC, where 4 African-American college students defied the store’s policy in February 1960. Finally, in August 2011, a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. opened on the National Mall. Situated on a direct line between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the memorial is the first of its kind on or near the National Mall to honor an African-American leader.
Jonathan Schilling, flickr
Atlanta, Georgia
At the epicenter of the civil rights movement, Atlanta saw protests, marches and boycotts. Decades before that, former slave Alonzo Herndon became the city’s first African-American millionaire by investing in real estate and starting an insurance company. His mansion is open for tours. Visitors can also tread in the footsteps of equal rights leaders along the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame, an outdoor promenade that features granite and bronze footprints of leaders, such as Harry Belafonte, Justice Thurgood Marshall, President Bill Clinton and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young. The walk is in the Sweet Auburn Historic District, a 1.5-mile stretch of road that includes Martin Luther King’s birth home.
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Montgomery, Alabama
In an event that helped launch the civil rights movement, seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955. Her arrest and trial prompted an organized boycott of Montgomery’s bus lines by the city’s African-American residents and led to the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which chose a young reverend named Martin Luther King Jr. as its president. The Rosa Parks Museum houses the Cleveland Avenue Time Machine, which uses multimedia effects to give visitors a glimpse of the bus boycott struggle, along with exhibits and a 103-seat auditorium that hosts lectures and performances, such as a recent reading of African-American women’s oral slave narratives.

History is not always comfortable or pretty, but by reflecting on our collective past we are likely to emerge enlightened and inspired.


Travel writer John Briley enjoys teaching his son about the civil rights movement.

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