by Fannie, MAKE UP
Martin Luther King anniversary: the US Civil Rights Trail
If you want to understand America, you must do the US Civil Rights Trail. A deep journey through the conscience of a nation, the sites commemorating the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights movement reveal a country trying to reconcile its founding principles with its racial inequities. This period marked the most significant division the nation had faced since its civil war. Throughout the trip, I kept asking myself: what would I do for freedom? There is no way to come away from the Trail without feeling transformed. The trip is equal parts history and inspiration.
The US Civil Rights Trail is a visionary idea: it connects the 110 sites and museums – mostly across the south, but stretching from Kansas in the Midwest to Delaware in New England – into a coherent map of a nation’s struggle and triumph. It opened officially in January this year, so in honour of next week’s 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr (4 April 1968), over five days I travel the 700-mile segment from his birthplace in Atlanta to the place he died in Memphis.
I begin at the King Center in Atlanta, the house at 501 Auburn Avenue where the great man was born in January 1929. It’s not possible to book a visit online; visitors are just advised to arrive early at the centre, as tours are filled on a first-come-first-served basis. Both King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, are buried on the grounds, their stone tombs sitting atop a blue reflection pool. The Ebenezer Baptist Church across the square, where both King’s father and he were pastors, plays an audio loop of one of King’s speeches, and I sit in a pew, listening. No matter how many times I hear his voice, it never loses its power.
Of all the cities on the trail, Atlanta is easily the most metropolitan. It’s a successful example of the New South, its historic markers mixing easily with its modern development. This is especially true of the architecturally stunning Center for Civil and Human Rights. Nestled between the World of Coca-Cola museum and the Georgia Aquarium, it connects the struggle for African American Civil Rights with global human rights campaigns. In Atlanta, I am reminded of what is possible when a city’s citizens work together to move out of a dark past.
That optimism is tempered a bit as I head west to Anniston, Alabama, a 1½-hour drive away. It is not lost on me that I am following the trail of the two buses that set out from Atlanta in 1961 to test federal rulings outlawing segregation on interstate buses. The hills rise around me: Anniston is in the beautiful foothills of the Appalachian mountains. Originally, workers settled here to mine iron ore and operate furnaces. I try to imagine what those Freedom Riders were thinking as they gazed out of the bus windows at the passing landscape. The city has created murals to mark the spots where the buses were met and fire bombed by angry mobs.
Some of the injured Freedom Riders made it to Birmingham after being viciously attacked. The city was nicknamed 「Bombingham」 for the 50 explosions that occurred here between 1947 and 1965 aimed at disrupting racial desegregation. Today, its successful efforts at downtown renewal are evident in many restored historic buildings. Three of the trail’s sites are within the same block: the Civil Rights Institute, 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park. Inside the Civil Rights Institute, I approach the exhibit that recreates King’s Birmingham jail cell where he wrote Letter from a Birmingham Jail. My guide urges me to touch the bars.
「These are the actual jail bars?」 I ask.
「Correct,」 he says. 「They are not a replica.」 The rough iron of the bar feels unusually warm beneath my hands.
On the basement wall of the 16th Baptist Church hangs the clock that stopped working at the moment the bomb planted by the Ku Klux Klan killed four little girls: 10.22am on 15 September, 1963. Across the street from the church, I see a diverse group of children playing in Kelly Ingram Park. They are too young to recall the days when student protesters in this park were met with fire hoses and police dogs.
I stop for a lunch at Niki’s West, a cafeteria-style restaurant which may have the longest soul food buffet I have ever seen. After lunch, I cross several sets of railroad tracks to reach Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville. On Christmas Day in 1956, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth’s home next to the church was bombed, but he walked out of the house with barely a scratch. Thomas L Wilder Jr has been pastor now for nearly 30 years, and he maintains the historic sanctuary for tours. On my visit, he spreads out a large canvas cloth signed by visitors from all over the world.
Montgomery, the state capital of Alabama, has more Civil Rights Trail sites than any other city. I find it remarkable that when King was hired as head pastor by Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954, he was only 25. Tour director Dr Shirley Cherry tells the story so vividly that you can imagine King and his young family living in the home. Across the street, in the basement of the church, King helped organise and plan the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott that ended in the desegregation of the city’s buses in 1956.
Half a mile away, the small but worthwhile Rosa Parks Museum is on the very site where she was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, an incident which brought the Civil Rights movement to international attention. I also learn the story of 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, who was arrested nine months prior to Parks. We are all familiar with Parks』 quiet dignity and refusal to be intimidated, but the fearlessness of many young people is woven throughout these stories.
By the time I drive to Selma, Alabama, I am contemplating the courage of all these everyday unsung heroes. The road to Selma from Montgomery is the US-80, the route travelled by those marching for voting rights in 1965. Today the site of 「Bloody Sunday」, Edmund Pettus Bridge, is busy with traffic, but tourists line its sidewalks taking pictures. I brace myself against the wind and walk up the bridge to join them.
I』m eager to get to Jackson to see the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum which opened last December. After a three-hour drive from Selma, I arrive at 9pm and check into a boutique hotel, the Old Capitol Inn. The next morning, I enjoy a perfect bowl of grits (corn porridge) from the hot breakfast buffet before walking across the street to the new museum, with its eight galleries. The website states that the museum focuses primarily on the years 1945-1976, but displays go back to the era of the transatlantic slave trade, and I am stirred by one of the most powerful lynching exhibits I have ever seen.
Another display is devoted to the late Medgar Evers, field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and I head next to his former home, at 2332 Margaret Walker Alexander Drive. Evers was shot in the driveway in June 1963, and there are still pale blood stains in the carport. A curator and archivist from nearby Tougaloo College, Minnie Watson, narrates the day of his murder and shows me where his frightened wife and children scrambled into the bathroom when they heard the gunshot. Some of Evers’s neighbours still live on the block, and a sense community spirit lives on.
My final stop is my hometown: Memphis, Tennessee, three hours north of Jackson on the Mississippi river where the south-west corner of Tennessee meets Arkansas and Mississippi. When I was a child, the fact that King had been murdered in Memphis was considered a stigma upon the city. City leaders began working in the 1980s to turn the site of his death – the Lorraine Motel – into a museum, and in 1991 the National Civil Rights Museum opened.
Its highlight is undoubtedly the walk past rooms 306 and 307, the motel rooms where King and his entourage stayed. Without being instructed, we keep our voices low. It is a hushed space; the only sound is Mahalia Jackson’s inimitable voice singing Take My Hand, Precious Lord.
King had arrived in Memphis to show his support for a strike by sanitation workers, whose meeting place was the historic Clayborn Temple. After years of disrepair, the church is to undergo a renovation beginning this summer. For now it is open for tours.
My final stop on this five-day tour is another church: Mason Temple, about a mile to the south, where King delivered his prophetic 「I』ve Been to the Mountaintop」 speech on 3 April 1968. It was the last speech he would ever give.
At the end of the day, I park my car and walk down the hill to the river and gaze out over the rippling current. Though it has been a busy five days, I am not tired. On the contrary, I am rejuvenated. I feel a new sense of understanding of my own life’s purpose and the lives of those who died for this cause. I wonder where this trail will take me next.
• The trip was provided by Brand USA. To plan your trip visit the civilrightstrail.com which has interactive maps and details of all the key sites
Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the author of two historical novels: Wench and Balm
HOW TO DO IT
The Martin Luther King Jr Center for Nonviolent Social Change (free)
Center for Civil and Human Rights ($19.99, child $15.99)
Eat: Atlanta Breakfast Club (breakfast $7-$14)
AnnistonFreedom Riders Park monument
BirminghamBirmingham Civil Rights Institute ($15, child free)
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (one-hour tour $5pp)
Historic Bethel Baptist Church Collegeville
Stay at Hampton Inn Tutwiler (doubles from $129)
MontgomeryCivil Rights Memorial Center ($2, child free)
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and Dexter Parsonage Museum: (church and museum tours $7.50 each, child $5.50 each)
Rosa Parks Museum ($7.50, child $5.50)
Stay at Hampton Inn & Suites Downtown (doubles from $131,)
SelmaHistoric Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church
National Voting Rights Museum & Institute ($6.50)
Edmund Pettus Bridge Walk
JacksonMississippi Civil Rights Museum ($8, child $5)
Stay at Old Capitol Inn (doubles from $99)
MemphisNational Civil Rights Museum ($16, child $13)
Stay at La Quinta Inn (doubles from $184)
- 2018-03-31 14:43:09