My wife and I discussed taking a Civil Rights road trip for a long time. The seeds were planted a few years ago after my wife heard Congressman John Lewis speak at a conference. Then, a new chapter in the Civil Rights movement began with the Black Lives Matter protests. After marching in a protest, my wife and I felt an overwhelming need to plan the trip and teach our children where we have come from as a Nation and how far we still need to go.
The planning took months. There are so many important places to stop; one cannot visit all of them. The trip took over 3 weeks and was an experience that none of my family members will forget. Well, maybe the baby.
We started at our home in New York City early in the morning and headed South to our first stop in Virginia.
We visited several Civil War battlefields on this trip, but this battle affected slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. Before the battle of Antietam, the Civil War was about preserving the Union. The South was trying to enlist England and France to aid them in the war. Europe needed the cotton from the South and was contemplating offering aid. Five days after the North’s win at Antietam, President Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to further cripple the South. And in doing so, the Civil War became a war to end slavery. England and France ended slavery in their countries and it would have looked horrible on their part if they aided those that protected slavery. It is conceivable that if the North lost at Antietam, the Civil War’s outcome could have swung in favor of the South, thus delaying the Civil Right’s Movement.
Before Booker T. Washington became principal of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School, a famous speaker, and one of the biggest influences in African American history, he was born a slave on James Burrough’s farm. His birthplace allows visitors to walk the grounds and imagine the world in which Washington’s family lived. There is an interesting museum on premises that chronicles the life of slavery on the farm. Visitors can stand where Washington and his family stood when they found out they were going to be free.
Stop 3: Atlanta, Georgia
Atlanta is considered the Civil Rights capital of the United States. Four days were spent by my family as we attempted to soak in as much history as time allowed.
I recommend that all Civil Rights tours in Atlanta should start at the visitor center. Visitors can park in a large parking lot behind the visitor center. The center offers many displays on King’s life and challenges visitors to follow his example. Visitors can receive an intense history lesson on the Civil Rights Movement by studying various displays on segregation, SNCC, Sit-ins, etc.
Across the street from the visitor center is Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church where Dr. King Jr. shared pastoral duties with his father. My kids and I sat in a pew while a sermon from Dr. King Jr., echoed within the church. The church was quiet and provided the perfect scene to reflect on King’s message and life.
Within walking distance from the visitor center and the church is the first integrated firehouse in Atlanta. Our tour guide offered stories of Dr. King as a child, playing inside and alongside the firehouse walls. A replica of an old fire truck is on display and history of the first African American firefighters is showcased within the firehouse.
A short walk down the road from the firehouse sits the home where Dr. King was born and raised. To see where a young Martin took his first breath, played, studied, and said his prayers had a big impact on my kids. It was nice to remember that all great men and women start out as children.
Between Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Firehouse is the King Center. The King Center was started by Corretta Scott King and is not part of the National Park. The Center holds the graves of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King within a beautiful reflection pool. Displays with documents written in Dr. King’s handwriting can be found along with his clothes and many other items. There is also a section on one of King’s heroes, Mahatma Ghandi.
The Center was my first post that I wrote about because I felt it needed its own separate space. It may be the most intense museum that I have visited. The interactive counter sit-in will stay with visitors long after the trip is over. To read my post about the Center, click here.
Stop 5: Tuskegee, Alabama
The Tuskegee Airmen National Site tells the history of a group of men and women who stood up for their country when it did not support them. The Site is huge and is a great place to explore. Inside the museum, visitors can find airplanes, artifacts, and an in-depth lesson on the trials and triumphs of the Tuskegee Airmen.
A short drive from the Airmen National Site is the Tuskegee Institute. Earlier in our trip, we saw the location of the slave cabin in Virginia where Booker T. Washington was born. Here, visitors can enter his home where he oversaw the Tuskegee Institute. Across from his house is the George Washington Carver Museum that celebrates the life and mind of Carver.
Stop 6: Birmingham, Alabama
If you are in Birmingham on a Sunday morning, there’s no better place to be than at the 16th Street Baptist Church. This was one of my favorite stops of the Civil Rights trip. The church was made famous by a horrific bombing by white supremacists on September 15th, 1963. The bombing took the lives of 4 young girls. Dr. King called the bombing, “One of the most vicious crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” What I found inside the church was hope. Reverend Price, the preacher at the church, gave a sermon on waiting on God’s time. That we don’t always understand why He is late or why He doesn’t answer, but we are on His schedule and not our own. Also, we don’t always understand why he lets things happen and okay to question why? It was a sermon I needed on that Sunday morning for a variety of reasons. And if you visit the church, make sure you see the mural on the balcony on the second floor that honors the four girls.
Across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The museum covers the city’s and America’s racist past. There is so much material that one needs a big block of time to cover it all. Much like other Civil Rights museums, the exhibits are intense and images are difficult to study, such as hangings and beatings. Kids (and adults) will struggle with many of the exhibits. I let my older kids see images and read the stories because I believe they need to know the costs of hatred and bigotry.
Stop 7: Montgomery, Alabama
Our time was limited in Montgomery, so we didn’t experience the city as we hoped. We ate a picnic lunch across from the Capital building and looked at the steps where Dr. King gave his speech on voting rights after the march from Selma. And near the capital is the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, which is where Dr. King pastored while in Montgomery.
Stop 8: Selma, Alabama
We drove from Montgomery to Selma along U.S. Route 80, the highway that marchers used when they trekked 51 miles to stand up for African American voting rights. There are two National Park interpretive centers on the trail. The first one we came to was the Lowndes Interpretative Center. My suggestion is to watch a film about the march in the interpretive center’s theater before venturing into Selma. The center also displays detailed information on the Civil Rights Movement. The Selma Interpretive Center is located across from the Edmund Pettis Bridge and provides information on why the protestors marched. Here rangers can assist with any questions about the area.
It is hard to put into words the feelings a visitor receives as they walk across the bridge. To look up at the beams marchers walked under hit me hard. This was where men and women seeking equality stared into hateful eyes. Where bigotry echoed into their ears. Where people were beaten and gassed. Where Dr. King knelt to one knee and then turned back. Where the Federal Government finally stepped in and did the right thing.
While walking the streets of Selma, we ran into Annie Pearl Avery. Ms. Avery is a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement and Bloody Sunday. To read that story, click here.
The Brown Chapel AME Church was the meeting place for SLCC students and the starting point for the march. We didn’t go inside and only looked at the monuments and building from the exterior.
Stop 7: New Orleans
Originally, the Cabildo was the seat of colonial government in New Orleans. Today it houses New Orleans history. Inside the Cabildo, a slave auction block can be found and stories of the evils of slavery. In one display, visitors can read a heartbreaking account of a mother being sold separately from her children.
Next to the Cabildo is the Presbytere. You can visit both places on one ticket. There is a display on Hurrican Katrina that is a must see for anyone visiting New Orleans.
The National World War II Musuem is considered one of the best museums on the war. One exhibit is about the African American soldiers that served and what waited for them once they returned. Many of the soldiers went on to become leaders in the Civil Rights Movement.
Ruby Bridges was my oldest son’s first Civil Rights hero. He heard about her when he was in kindergarten and Ruby’s example of bravery stayed with him. The William Frantz Public School is still a working school and the entrance is the same as when Ms. Bridges attended school. One can imagine the scene when Ruby was escorted by Marshalls.
Stop 8: Memphis, Tennessee
In Atlanta, we saw where Dr. King took his first breath. Throughout the trip, we saw where he marched. In Memphis, we saw where he drew his last breath. Looking at the spot where Dr. King died is one of those moments where you don’t talk, you just feel. From the oldest in our group to the youngest, we stared silently at the spot where he died. Even the 4-year-old understood something horrible happened there. The Lorraine Hotel is now the National Civil Rights Museum and visitors can walk along a Civil Rights timeline from Slavery until today. As we walked, it registered stronger than ever that the Civil Rights Movement is not that old. The Movement carries on and there is more work to do.
Stop 9: Cincinnati, Ohio
Our last stop on our Civil Rights road trip was at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. It was our last stop for several reasons. The museum provides a vivid account from slavery, through the heart of the movement, and today. This was a great way to end the trip because much of the museum is dedicated to the continued fight for equality. Slavery, sex trafficking, and harsh child labor still exists. Ending here reminded my family we are not finished. People continue to be victimized and we must stand up for justice.
The other reason it was for logistical reasons. It was a good turnaround spot to make the long drive back to NYC.
A Missed stop:
Because of time restraints, we were forced to skip the Medger Evers house in Jackson, Mississippi and I have been kicking myself since. Medger Evers was the NAACP Field Secretary. Evers was assassinated while standing in his driveway. The house is now a museum honoring his life and the Civil Rights Movement.
The experiences we had cannot be duplicated by studying books or watching movies. If you can, I highly recommend taking kids on this long journey. Obviously we couldn’t see everything and didn’t travel to Little Rock or to Kansas. We hope to extend our Civil Rights road trip to those locations another time.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture was under construction when we began our trip. Smithsonian’s newest museum would have been a must stop had it been opened.
Throughout our trip, we stopped at places that did not have Civil Rights significance. I will post those stops soon. If you are taking this trip with kids, I highly recommend adding fun stops along the way. Visiting places like Graceland in Memphis or the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta are great ways to have momentary escapes from reality.
An (*) means the location is a National Park. If you are taking kids, have them participate in the Junior Park Ranger Program.
If you have written about a Civil Right location, please post the link in the comments.