As a child who grew up in California in the 1960s, I was alive when Martin Luther King Jr. made his monumental “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, when “Bloody Sunday” happened at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and when the assassinations of King, Kennedy, and Malcolm X all occurred. In school, I learned about how Jim Crow laws limited the rights of black Americans, I learned about the Tuskegee airmen, the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott and how Rosa Parks wouldn’t give up her seat on that Greyhound bus. I read about how the Freedom Riders rode across our country together (whites and blacks) to end segregation on public transportation.
I’ve always wanted to visit these historical places that designated the “civil rights struggle” within our country. Lately, there have been a series of museums, monuments, and exhibitions to document what occurred and to present solutions for moving forward. Here’s a snapshot of my 5-day driving trip down the Civil Rights Trail.
I began in New Orleans because I love the city and it was also historically significant. In 1763-1802 when the Spanish ruled the city, Congo Square was the only place where enslaved people were allowed to gather every Sunday, to trade, sing, dance, and play music; After the Louisiana Purchase, this continued until 1840, eventually leading to the birth of jazz music. (For more info about New Orleans, see my two blog posts on Jazzfest at the end of this post.)
Our next stop was Biloxi, Mississippi. In 1960, the city’s entire 26-mile-long shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico was segregated with a tiny parcel designed “black only”. Led by physician Gilbert Mason, the black community sought to rectify restricted access by enacting a series of “wade-in” protests. The protesters had no weapons of any kind, but they were met by a mob of police and civilians with guns, pipes, and other various tools. Several injuries insured at each wade-in. The issue of beach access was only settled five years later, in federal court. The beach today in Biloxi resembles Las Vegas with many casinos.
While in Biloxi, I visited the Ohr Okeefe museum designed by Frank Gehry. The museum includes a home built by Mr. Pleasant Reed, in 1887, a newly emancipated resident of the area. Upon entering the home, one can view videos and exhibits of the family life of the Reeds. They came to Biloxi to seek a better life for themselves and their children while facing the additional challenges of increasingly rigid segregationist laws that characterized the “Jim Crow” era in America. The story of their lives is one of perseverance and determination in spite of dauntingly adverse circumstances.
For art lovers, also worth seeing is the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in nearby Ocean Springs. Anderson is touted as the “south’s most elusive artist.” Reclusive nature-lover Walter Anderson spent weeks at a time on an uninhabited island, sketching and painting the natural surroundings and animals to create some of his most brilliant watercolors, which he kept hidden during his lifetime. He created sculptures, oil paintings, drawings, and murals as well. When he passed, his wife was shocked to discover that he had a “secret room” which was painted from floor to ceiling. This is all on display at the museum, along with other works and a small cafe.
Continuing along the trail, I reached Mobile, Alabama, in time to have a down-home lunch at Mary Mahoney’s French House. In Mobile, I learned about Civil rights activist John L. LeFlore, who was born in Mobile in 1903. In 1925, he reorganized the city’s insolvent NAACP Branch and inaugurated a fifty-year career of service to African Americans. LeFlore recruited Vivian Malone to desegregate the University of Alabama, Birdie Mae Davis to desegregate the city’s schools, and Wiley Bolden to change the city’s form of government. After the banning of the NAACP in Alabama, he instituted a Non-Partisan Voters League which published “Pink Sheets.” The Pink Sheets listed state and local candidates who were considered advocates of the civil rights movement.
In Mobile, we stayed at the Battle House Hotel, originally built in the early 1800s, it served as General (and later, President) Andrew Jackson’s military quarters for the war of 1812. Later rebuilt in 1905 in its current Greek Revival style, President Woodrow Wilson stayed there in 1913, and during that stay, he made his now-famous remark: “The United States will never again seek one added foot of territory by conquest.” In 1975, the Department of the Interior listed the hotel on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Today it’s a part of the Marriot chain, and I found it to have a gorgeous lobby with clean and pleasant rooms. We dined at Noja for a Prix Fixe 3-course (appetizer, salad, entree) dinner which was tasty, southern, and innovative but way too much food.
Next stop: Selma, Alabama. In the 1960s, Selma captured the attention of the entire nation and became the center of a decisive shift in the American conscience due to the voting rights campaign. Selma was the starting point for three marches in support of African-Americans’ right to vote. These marches were crucial to the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The act prohibited racial discrimination in voting, protecting the right to vote for racial minorities in the U.S. and especially in the American South. Now a National Historic Landmark, the Edmund Pettus Bridge was the site of the brutal “Bloody Sunday” beatings of civil rights activists during the first march for voting rights. (Edmund Pettus was a KKK leader.)
Between 1961 and 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had led a voting registration campaign in Selma, a small town with a record of consistent resistance to black voting. When SNCC’s efforts were frustrated by stiff resistance from the county law enforcement officials, SNCC and MLK Jr. were persuaded by local activists to make this a national concern.
During January and February 1965, King and SNCC led a series of demonstrations at the Selma Courthouse. On February 18, protester Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot by an Alabama state trooper and died eight days later. In response, a protest march from Selma to Montgomery was scheduled for March 7.
Six hundred marchers assembled in Selma on Sunday, March 7, led by John Lewis and SNCC activists. They crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River en route to Montgomery. Just short of the bridge, they found their way blocked by Alabama State troopers and local police who ordered them to turn around. When the protesters refused, the officers shot teargas and waded into the crowd, beating the nonviolent protesters with billy clubs and ultimately hospitalizing over fifty people. By televising this event, the nation began to see what was actually happening. A second march was scheduled for March 9, but canceled by MLK.
On March 21, the final successful march began, this time with federal protection, and on August 6, 1965, the federal Voting Rights Act was passed, completing the process that King had hoped for. I had always heard about the protest that included a walk from Selma to Montgomery, but I had no idea how long it was. It’s 54-miles! Until I drove that path and imagined these people walking, sleeping, and hoping not to be beaten or killed along the way, I couldn’t really imagine what they went through.
Selma today is a city in disrepair. The people we met mentioned that they receive very little in the way of city/government funding. There is one small hotel, a few shops and restaurants, and not much else operational.
54 miles later, we reached Montgomery, Alabama, the heart of the Civil Rights Trail and the capital of the state. This city has numerous sites that are heart-breaking and yet necessary to see as part of the complete picture of the fight for civil rights. The Legacy Museum is quite impactful. The theme is “from slavery to incarceration,” in that they are stations along the same continuum. The entrance hall of the museum features holograms of enslaved people speaking directly to the viewer about their feelings, worries, and experiences. The other exhibits show Jim Crow laws, quotes from southern politicians, photographs of violence and slavery, and letters from prisoners on death row. There is a hall with “civil rights champions” and videos of note. Overall, it paints a devastatingly vivid portrait of what has occurred in our country.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is an outdoor museum which is equally upsetting. This is a large-scale monument to the 4000 known lynching victims (men, women, and children) killed in the USA between 1877 and 1950. Each county where someone was lynched is represented by a large hanging vertical steel plate. Inscribed on the plate are the names and dates of the known victims from that county. Dirt has also been collected from various lynching sites and marked accordingly and there are some sculptures throughout the exhibit, and poignant quotes as well. The Equal Justice Initiative runs the memorial, and their collections help to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenge racial and economic injustice, and to protect basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.
While in Montgomery, I was fortunate enough to visit 333 S. Jackson Street, also known as The Dr. Richard Harris House. In May 1961, while martial law reigned, Dr. Harris provided a haven to 33 Freedom Riders after they were attacked at the Greyhound Bus Station for riding the bus and sitting together as blacks and whites. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived a few doors down the street. I got to meet Dr. Valda Montgomery, daughter of Dr. Harris, who grew up in the house and knew MLK quite well. She has written a book called “Just A Neighbor” as that was what he was to her. She told me how scared she was the night MLK’s house was bombed, (she was 10 years old) and how sad she was when he was shot. He was the preacher at the local Dexter Ave. Baptist Church, his first and only job as a minister. The church was just steps away from the capital, the building where the politicians were making laws against the civil rights he was preaching. At the time, it was illegal for him to walk up those capital steps.
In Montgomery, we stayed at the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel and Spa. The river view from our room was scenic and serene, and we were in the center of town, however, the train came by several times a night and honked at the intersection. (Bring your earplugs!) As far as food goes, a visit to Montgomery would not be complete without a meal at Dreamland BBQ. The sauce is so good, you simply must order a bottle online!! (Link below) We had a delicious dinner at Central, a trendy spot in an adaptive reuse industrial building.
Atlanta, Georgia… the biggest city on my road trip. MLK was born in Atlanta and you can view his childhood home on Auburn Ave. He and his wife are also buried at The King Center in town. The Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Court of Appeals Building in town served as the seat of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The judges here (known as the “Fifth Four”) were responsible for the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education in the South. In 1952-1954, this milestone decision by the Supreme Court ruled that separating children in public schools on the basis of race was unconstitutional. It signaled the end of legalized racial segregation overruling the “separate but equal” principle.
Other sites include The African-American Panoramic Experience Museum, more commonly known as the APEX Museum, which epitomizes the story of African and African American history and culture, and The Center for Civil and Human Rights, a multicultural center with exhibits highlighting the Civil Rights Movement and the modern human rights movement.
I took time out from the museum touring to visit an artist friend of ours whose studio is 45 minutes outside of Atlanta in Fayetteville. Nnamdi Okonkwo is a world-renowned sculptor, who I first met at Jazzfest in New Orleans. His wonderfully joyous sculptures of women are whimsical and heartfelt. They are table-top-size for home exhibits or six to ten feet for public art spaces. It was such a pleasure seeing where he works and catching up with him.
While in Atlanta, we had to make a repeat visit to one of our favorites, Mary Mac’s Tearoom, for some southern home cooking. One of the highlights is hearing the waitstaff sing “Happy Birthday” to guests in a harmony gospel version.
My final stop: Savannah, Georgia/Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina. Surprisingly to me, in 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. declared Savannah the most desegregated city south of the Mason-Dixon Line. After a series of NAACP Youth Council sit-ins at lunch counters, businesses that were segregated were boycotted. This led to elections of a more moderate city government, and a rollback of segregation in Savannah in 1963.
I enjoyed a little downtime at the Montage Palmetto Bluff, a beautiful 20,000-acre property along the May River in Lowcountry South Carolina. This resort is a nature preserve and it sure felt peaceful! The hotel provided bikes, a picnic lunch, a quiet adult pool, a boat ride on the river, delicious restaurants, and even a hidden s’mores cart in the woods at night. I didn’t want to leave!
For anyone with teens that are unfamiliar with the perils of the fight for civil rights in our country, this would make an excellent family road trip. The drives are all under 2 hours, except the Atlanta to Savannah leg, which is 4 hours. The hotels are family rate-friendly (except the Montage in South Carolina.) Having seen these cities and sights, I have definitely increased my understanding, compassion, and mission to forever continue to help with civil rights. (The Legacy Museum considers incarceration today’s version of slavery.)
I hope this blog post has helped your journey as well.
Seen along the road: