Trail blazes with symbols of courage
Blacks' drive for civil rights made these Southern towns historic flashpoints in the '60s
A plaque at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Medgar Evers Boulevard in Jackson. (Essdras M. Suarez/Globe Staff)
It may come as a surprise to many that there are hundreds of marked civil rights sites across the South: simple plaques memorializing significant events and places; monuments, museums, and structures that once housed organizations that were homes to local leaders or targets of protests. So, how can a traveler plan a tour without becoming overwhelmed? An easy solution is to ask for the help of someone who knows these historic trails. But be forewarned: If you ask more than one person, you will quickly discover that everyone has personal preferences.
I was a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1962-67 and know these places well. Here are some of my favorite routes, easy journeys that teach much. Making your way to these sites will, through conversation or brochures, lead you to others.
Tennessee: Nashville to Memphis
There is great triumph and great tragedy in this state. The student sit-in movement that erupted in Greensboro, N.C., on Feb. 1, 1960, rapidly spread across the South. By the end of March sit-ins were taking place in 80 Southern cities. The strongest and most disciplined of these nonviolent attacks on segregation took place in Nashville. The Nashville Public Library Civil Rights Room (615 Church St.) offers a vivid retelling of that story. It is worth noting that this city's student movement was led by a woman, Diane Nash, a student at historically black Fisk University (1000 17th Ave. North), which is well worth a visit. Women led much of the Southern movement.
Memphis, a little over 200 miles away, is, of course, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel (450 Mulberry St.), which is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum (civilrightsmuseum.org). Despite the sorrow that can envelop you when peering into the room where King spent his last night, the museum is inspiring, offering a comprehensive view of the civil rights struggle across the South. It drives home the realization that ordinary people gave the movement its great strength.
Mississippi: Philadelphia to Jackson and Ruleville
When it came to anti-black violence and the suppression of civil rights, no state had a worse reputation than Mississippi. Nonetheless, the June 21, 1964, murders in Philadelphia of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, who were working to register black voters in the state that summer, shocked the nation and put Mississippi's civil rights struggle on the front page. At the Old Jolly Farm (Highway 21 south of town), where their bullet-riddled bodies were buried in an earthen dam, there is a "No Trespassing" sign. A rebuilt Mount Zion United Methodist Church (County Line Road, about six miles from Philadelphia in the Longdale community) sits on the site of the church whose burning by Ku Klux Klansmen had brought the three young men to the county that fateful day. Hanging from a metal frame in front of Mount Zion is a bell that survived the torching. A plaque pays tribute to the victims.
The state capital, Jackson, is a little over 80 miles from Philadelphia. The Old Capitol Museum (100 South State St.) is an important stop in this city, which saw much civil rights activity, and is the hometown of Medgar Evers, the slain NAACP leader. In 1984 the first floor of this building, once the state capitol, became the first permanent civil rights exhibit in the United States. Evers's house (2332 Margaret Walker Alexander Drive) is a small museum now.
You should not leave Mississippi without visiting its northwest corner, known as the "Delta." In this region of catfish and cotton, Ruleville is the hometown of Fannie Lou Hamer (junction of Highways 49 and 8), one of the great symbols of grass-roots leadership. At her gravesite in Ruleville (US 49 South, turn east on Byron, go to end; site on left), where in late summer the rows of cotton are not far away, her headstone is marked with words she made famous and that explain much of what drove the movement: "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Alabama: Montgomery to Selma
Some of the movement's most famous names and places are in Montgomery, including Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (454 Dexter Ave.), where King was pastor from 1954-60, and the Rosa Parks Library and Museum (252 Montgomery St.), on the site where Parks was arrested in 1955 for refusing to surrender her seat on a bus to a white man as ordered.
The children's wing offers a replica of the bus Parks was riding as a "time machine" for travel through various eras of civil rights struggle. But it's the less visited parsonage of King's old church that I like best (309 South Jackson St.). It is now a small museum. There you get a sense of King the pastor and family man, dimensions often lost in the iconic portrayals of him. Looking at photographs here you also realize how young King was - just 26 - when he emerged as leader of Montgomery's movement.
From Montgomery, Highway 80 takes you to another important city, Selma. Here, "Bloody Sunday" on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, thrust the denial of voting rights into the national consciousness and led to the passage that year of the Voting Rights Act. Beneath the eastern end of the bridge there is a small Voting Rights Memorial Park with murals and monuments commemorating those who struggled for voting rights.
A larger National Voting Rights Museum and Institute (1012 Water Ave.) stands in the shadow of the Pettus Bridge in a building once headquarters of Selma's White Citizens Council. The National Park Service also staffs an informative Voting Rights Trail Interpretive Center (Highway 80 between mile markers 105 and 106).
While the Lincoln Memorial has become identified with civil rights demonstrations, I want to send you to the other end of the National Mall. There, look at the US Capitol where national legislation for civil rights has been enacted over the years and whose House and Senate chambers are an international symbol of representative democracy. But the Capitol was built by slaves. Even the difficult casting of the tall bronze Statue of Freedom atop it was overseen by a slave.
Charles E. Cobb Jr., author of "On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail" (Algonquin, 2008), can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.