Learning About the Civil Rights Era Through Travel

On assignment in Montgomery, Ala., recently, I toured the Rosa Park Museum with a capacity student crowd; sang “We Shall Overcome” in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church with tour-goers from Ohio, California and China; and waited 10 minutes in line at the Southern Poverty Law Center museum to buy my souvenir water bottle (for a good cause).

My experience, it turns out, is indicative of the current excitement surrounding civil rights tourism in the United States 50 years after the assassination of the movement’s leader, Dr. King.

“It’s a part of American history, not just African-American history,” said Andrea Taylor, the chief executive of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Ala. “There seems to be a convergence of interest in telling a more complete version of American evolution to include communities of color and particularly African-American communities.”

The institute is part of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which launched in January, and identifies 110 locations associated with Civil Rights history in the 1950s and 60s across 14 states. They range from the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where peaceful protesters staged sit-ins, to the house of Daisy Bates, one of the original black students to desegregate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.

The trail is expected to draw five million visitors this year; those visitors will spend some $725 million on travel, according to Lee Sentell, the director of Alabama’s tourism department who oversees the trail.

“The whole purpose is to elevate this group of mostly modest locations, churches and schools where significant events in American history happened, that for the most part have not had a great deal of local support,” said Mr. Sentell.

On and off the trail, history museums, attractions and destinations around the country are emphasizing the civil rights story in an era of renewed activism around race and equality.

“We see parallels between what happened then and what’s happening now,” said Ms. Taylor. “People are looking for touchstones from history that give credibility and direction and momentum to their current activities.” The following trips and attractions bring the era to life.

Events and Attractions

Visitors to Nashville can explore the infamous Woolworth lunch counter where sit-ins took place in a very visceral way at the new Woolworth on 5th restaurant. The original downtown five-and-dime, where the congressman John Lewis, then a student protester, was arrested, has recently reopened with an updated menu (there’s harissa fried chicken), an upbeat atmosphere (clips of musical dance sequences play on a movie screen) and hints at the site’s past, including photos of the protests.

“We’ve had people come in here and touch the walls and say, ‘My mother was arrested here,’ and it’s emotional,” said the owner, Tom Morales, who aims to straddle historic interest with contemporary hospitality. “We wanted to represent the change that people sat in for.”

In addition to live music in the basement ballroom, Woolworth on 5th holds a monthly program called “The Big Idea” in which the actor Barry Scott pays tribute to the lives of civil rights activists, including Rosa Parks (June) and Fannie Lou Hamer (July), and to the music of the Harlem Renaissance (September) and slaves (October).

In Philadelphia, the National Constitution Center is celebrating the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in its 150th anniversary year. The amendment, which guarantees equal protection, was the legal basis of the civil rights campaign and is the theme for the center’s annual Constitution Day celebration, Sept. 17. The special programming will include constitutional studies experts discussing “Civil Rights Across the Centuries” on June 11.

At the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, the virtual reality simulation Rosa Parks Experience, opened in 2016, puts museum-goers on the bus and in the seat of Ms. Parks who refused to give it up to a white passenger in Montgomery in 1955, the act that led to the explosion of the civil rights movement.

Destinations and Day Trips

Eight South Carolina cities dot the official Civil Rights Trail, but the Green Book, a mobile travel guide to African-American cultural sites across the state, lists more than 300 entries. Originally a national guide to safe places for African Americans traveling between 1936 and 1966, the Green Book was revived in May 2017 as a mobile site (greenbookofsc.com) by the South Carolina African-American Heritage Commission. It identifies nationally or state-recognized historic places and is searchable via categories such as historic churches, cultural attractions and H.B.C.U.s, or historically black colleges and universities.

In New Orleans, a new section of Press Street is being renamed after Homer Plessy, the early Civil Rights activist whose case for riding in a whites-only train car led to the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. The New Orleans Civil Rights Movement Tour from Tours by Judy follows the story from slave auction sites in the French Quarter to the cemetery where Mr. Plessy is buried and weaves in stories of Canal Street sit-ins demanding equal treatment at lunch counters and in shops.

Roughly midway between Memphis, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala., Tupelo, Miss., isn’t on the new Civil Rights Trail, but has its own heritage trail that identifies Civil War and Civil Rights sights as well as those related to the indigenous Chickasaw Nation. Though Tupelo is perhaps best known as the birthplace of Elvis Presley, its historical markers identify the site of the Woolworth lunch counter where protests occurred, the Spring Hill Missionary Baptist Church, which served as a gathering place for Civil Rights activists, and the 1964 March of Discontent over voter registration and minority hiring.

In April, VisitDallas created a new self-guided Civil Rights tour that visits the bungalow home of Juanita Craft, a prominent leader in the movement, the Dallas Civil Rights Museum at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center and the trendy Deep Ellum neighborhood, the historic black entertainment district. The itinerary is available online (visitdallas.com/civilrightstour) or in a brochure at the visitor center.

Group Tours

For a deep dive into the subject, the educational, nonprofit travel company Road Scholar guides eight-day Heart of the Civil Rights Movement road trips. Tours will take place in October and November and visit sites in Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, Ala., and Birmingham. (from $1,859 a person).

For those who can form their own groups, Freedom Lifted arranges custom itineraries to Civil Rights sights primarily in the South. Its past clientele has included students, clergy, activists and families. Groups range between 15 and 45 people. Prices vary based on group size, itinerary and trip length and generally require six months to organize.

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