I grew up in California during the 60s so the Civil Rights Movement was largely something I watched on TV instead of lived through. I had friends in various human shades so I don’t know that I really understood what all the fuss was about.
I have been to some great sites over the last couple of years during some awesome road trips in the South that gave me a better understanding of what happened in that time and why.
National Civil Rights Museum – Memphis, Tennessee
This museum may be my favorite museum in the United States because:
- It tells the very interesting story of the Civil Rights movement
- It is a very well presented museum. You can get on the bus with Rosa Parks and hear the bus driver yelling for her to move to the back.
- The museum is located in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King Jr was shot and killed.
It is one of the best places I know to get a larger overview of the story of civil rights in the United States. Despite being at a site that will forever be associated with Martin Luther King Jr., it does a good job of highlighting the other leaders and organizations who took part in the struggle, especially in the 1950s and 1960s.
read more – Memphis, Tennessee – Great American Road Trip
Selma To Montgomery National Historic Trail
This site covers the route that the civil rights marchers traveled from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery (Alabama’s capital) in their quest to claim the right to vote that they had been given, in theory, by the 15th amendment to the U.S. constitution in 1869. Nearly 100 years later in 1965, those promises had still not been delivered.
In a series of 3 marches in 1965, civil rights protesters aimed to walk the 54-mile highway in a non-violent protest against laws that prevent blacks from voting in practice. On March 7, 1965, near Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday, state troopers attacked and beat the peaceful marchers before a shocked country.
The march led President Johnson to introduce the Civil Rights Act. He introduced it with a speech known as “The American Promise” which included such lines as:
In our time we have come to live with moments of great crisis. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues; issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression. But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation.
The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.
Freedom Riders National Monument
In 1961 a group of “Freedom Riders” started a series of non-violent protests by simply riding buses. In 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission used its authority over interstate commerce to desegregate long-haul buses like Greyhound and Trailways. But these laws were challenged in the southern states where “Jim Crow” laws required negros to ride in the back of the bus and use separate (and sub-standard) facilities in the bus stations.
By simply riding in the front of the bus these riders broke local laws and customs. This led to an attack by the local KKK on two different buses in Anniston, Alabama. The riders were beaten and one of the two buses was burned.
This site does not yet have a visitor center so it is more of a work in progress.
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
In 1957 when 9 black kids wanted to attend the all-white high school in Little Rock they were prevented from doing so even though in 1954 the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education had declared segregated public schools to be unconstitutional. This was the first test of the federal government to enforce this new policy. Eventually, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had to send in federal troops to enable the children to get through the crowds of demonstrators.
Martin Luther King Jr Memorial – Washington D.C.
Just off the Mall in Washington D.C. is one of the newer monuments, the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” on the National Mall nearby.
This towering work, somewhat ironically carved out of white stone, was inspired by a line in his speech “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
More Civil Rights Sites
This is only a sampling of some of the many civil rights sites recognized by the National Park Service.