Moon U.S. Civil Rights Trail
A Traveler's Guide to the People, Places, and Events that Made the Movement
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- Flexible Itineraries: Travel the entire trail through the South, or take a weekend getaway to Charleston, Birmingham, Jackson, Memphis, Washington DC, and more places significant to the Civil Rights Movement
- Historic Civil Rights Sites: Learn about Dr. King's legacy at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, be transformed at the small but mighty Emmett Till Intrepid Center, and stand tall with Little Rock Nine at their memorial in Arkansas
- The Culture of the Movement: Get to know the voices, stories, music, and flavors that shape and celebrate Black America both then and now. Take a seat at a lunch counter where sit-ins took place or dig in to heaping plates of soul food and barbecue. Spend the day at museums that connect our present to the past or spend the night in the birthplace of the blues
- Expert Insight: Award-winning journalist Deborah Douglas offers her valuable perspective and knowledge, including suggestions for engaging with local communities by supporting Black-owned businesses and seeking out activist groups
- Travel Tools: Find driving directions for exploring the sites on a road trip, tips on where to stay, and full-color photos and maps throughout
- Detailed coverage of: Charleston, Atlanta, Selma to Montgomery, Birmingham, Jackson, the Mississippi Delta, Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville, Raleigh, Durham, Virginia, and Washington DC
- Foreword by Bree Newsome Bass: activist, filmmaker, and artist
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Experience the U.S. Civil Rights Trail
10 Unforgettable Experiences
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
WHERE TO LEARN ABOUT…
FOLLOWING THE FREEDOM RIDERS
THE U.S. CIVIL RIGHTS TRAIL
CIVIL RIGHTS ROAD TRIPS
REASONS TO CELEBRATE
THREE- TO FOUR-DAY ROAD TRIPS
The U.S. Civil Rights Trail follows the twists and turns of a momentous era in U.S. history: the civil rights movement.
Our journey starts in Charleston—the main port of entry for many enslaved Africans—then winds through Southern cities and towns where demonstrators waged marches, boycotts, and Freedom Rides. At risk of being locked up (they were), bitten by trained dogs (that happened), or shot and killed (that happened, too), these courageous activists and workaday people of all ages caused our nation to fundamentally shift course and begin to truly embrace its stated ideals.
For travelers, the trail offers a wealth of opportunities to learn, contemplate, and grow. Stand in the footsteps of heroes at churches, courthouses, and sit-in sites. Expand your knowledge at museums and pay respect to slain martyrs at moving memorials. As you encounter unsung heroes like Pauli Murray, a queer Black woman who was an early challenger of “separate but equal,” you’ll see: There is so much more to this story than what is taught in school.
Any journey on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail will surely unleash a range of emotions, from anger to awe over the ability of human will to triumph over adversity. There’s never been a more auspicious time to visit. The movement has served as inspiration and as a blueprint for action for many modern movements: #BlackLivesMatter, the fight for LGBTQ rights, and the March for Our Lives to end gun violence, to name a few.
Our journey ends in Washington DC, where some of the demands raised by movement leaders eventually found a hearing. But of course, it doesn’t really end there. African Americans have always resisted oppression: The movement of the 1950s and ’60s is just a part of a long through line that continues to this day. Traveling the U.S. Civil Rights Trail will challenge you to ask yourself: What parts of “America” as presented in our founding documents can be made real? Hopefully you’ll agree that the answer is all of it.
10 Unforgettable Experiences
Along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail
1 Learning about the ways in which African Americans have shaped our country at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC.
2 Walking in Martin Luther King Jr.’s footsteps at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Room 306, where he stayed before being assassinated on the balcony of this motel, has been frozen in time.
3 Contemplating where Memphis has been—as well as where it’s headed now—at I Am A Man Plaza, where sanitation workers went on strike for better pay and working conditions in 1968. A sculpture by Cliff Garten commemorates the event.
4 Learning the truth—the whole truth—about the civil rights movement and much more at The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Alabama.
5 Trying to summon the courage of the Little Rock Nine as you step foot onto the formerly segregated campus of Little Rock Central High School.
6 Grasping the terror of life for Black people in the Jim Crow South through dynamic exhibits at Jackson’s Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
7 Visiting Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where a young, charismatic man by the name of Martin Luther King Jr. stepped into the role of minister in 1954.
8 Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where peaceful voting-rights demonstrators faced violence at the hands of law enforcement in 1965.
9 Honoring civil rights activists, as well as four young girls who died in a KKK bombing, at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
10 Observing a moment of silence outside the ruins of Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, where a lie about Black teen Emmett Till turned murderous in 1955. The subsequent outrage is regarded as the catalyst to the modern civil rights movement.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Where to Go
Charleston’s harbor—the main point of entry for many enslaved Africans—can be considered the starting place for the civil rights struggle. The sights here, including the Old Slave Mart Museum (a former market where the enslaved were bought and sold), and Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (aka Mother Emanuel), where nine parishioners were murdered by a White supremacist in 2015, can be a lot to endure. Excellent food and tours led by Gullah/Geechee guides offer balance.
Atlanta is where Martin Luther King Jr. was born, and where his homegoing was held after his assassination. It’s also home to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an important civil rights organization. Visitors to the city can walk in King’s footsteps, visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Birth Home as well as Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was ordained at the age of 19, and where he was laid to rest in 1963. Still open for business is Busy Bee Café, where King liked to eat. Modern Atlanta is a diverse and thriving place that’s open and accepting.
Small-town Selma, Alabama, was a hotbed of voting rights activity during (and even before) the movement, culminating in a triumphant march toward the state capitol of Montgomery in 1965. Visitors can make an appointment to see Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, where important marches departed, and walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where marchers were met with violence on Bloody Sunday. It’s also possible (and worthwhile) to drive along the march route to Montgomery, making a stop at the Lowndes Interpretive Center along the way.
Alabama’s state capitol was the site of a yearlong bus boycott, instigated when Rosa Parks famously refused to relinquish her bus seat to a White passenger in 1955. It’s also where King rose to prominence as the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and where a crowd 25,000 gathered after the Selma to Montgomery march to demand voting rights at the state capitol building. Today, the city’s museums include the Rosa Parks Museum, the Freedom Rides Museum, and The Legacy Museum, which draws an irrefutable through-line from enslavement to mass incarceration. It’s a transformative place, as is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice that accompanies it—it’s the first-ever memorial to victims of lynching.
Birmingham, Alabama, saw so much violence before and during the civil rights movement that the city earned itself a nickname: Bombingham. The city was the site of an intense, multifaceted campaign against segregation in 1963, known as the Birmingham Campaign. This is also where four young girls perished in a KKK bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church. Today, visitors can contemplate commemorative public art in Kelly Ingram Park, a site of mass meetings and rallies during the Birmingham Campaign, and learn more about local action at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Meanwhile, 16th Street Baptist Church still stands, and heretell, parishioners are still welcoming.
Mississippi’s state capitol was home to Medgar Evers, an early martyr in the civil rights movement. Travelers can visit the Medgar Evers Home Museum, where Evers once lived and where he was assassinated in 1963. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which opened in 2017, is another of Jackson’s must-sees, with interactive displays that bring the movement to life.
Jackson was also the destination of James Meredith’s March Against Fear in 1966. Marchers stopped in Canton, about 30 miles north of Jackson, and you can too: Here, The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Freedom House, which served as a refuge for marchers, has been transformed into the Canton Freedom House Civil Rights Museum, a tiny trove of civil rights artifacts, photographs, and memorabilia.
As the site of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s brutal murder, which, when publicized, incited outrage, it could be argued that the Mississippi Delta is where the civil rights movement took flight. Travelers today can pay respects to Till at Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, where a false accusation against the child led to his murder. A pair of museums dedicated to Till provides context. The Delta is also the birthplace of the blues, which visitors can experience through museums, including the Delta Blues Museum and the B. B. King Museum & Delta Interpretive Center, and blues clubs.
Little Rock is famous as the site where nine Black high school students faced down hateful segregationists to integrate the local all-White high school. Still a functioning school, Little Rock Central High School is also a national historic site that can be visited on a tour. Elsewhere in Little Rock, Mosaic Templars Cultural Center tells the story of the city’s West 9th Street Historic District, a former hub of Black-owned businesses.
In 1968, King traveled to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, who united under the powerful slogan, “I Am A Man.” Pay tribute to these workers at Clayborn Temple, where they organized daily marches, and the adjacent I Am A Man Plaza. It was during this trip to Memphis that King’s assassination took place at the Lorraine Motel, which has been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, a can’t-miss sight.
Today, Memphis is a majority-Black city, and there is fun to be had here, whether on Beale Street or at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which celebrates Black musical forms.
Nashville is notable for the Nashville Student Movement, which coordinated a series of sit-ins in 1960 that led to Nashville being the first city in America to desegregate all public facilities. Learn about the student movement at the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library and pay tribute to local leaders like Diane Nash at the Witness Walls at the Davidson County Courthouse. Travelers can also enjoy a meal at the historic Woolworth on Fifth (a former sit-in site)—a delightfully transgressive experience.
GREENSBORO, RALEIGH, AND DURHAM
In 1960, a sit-in at Greensboro’s segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter set off a movement: Scores of nonviolent demonstrations across the South followed. The Woolworth’s building, including a section of the original lunch counter, has been reimagined as the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. Other notable sights in this area include a collection of murals in Durham (including a set dedicated to local activist Pauli Murray), and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Gardens in Raleigh, birthplace of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
RICHMOND AND FARMVILLE
Way back in 1951, 16-year-old Black student Barbara Johns orchestrated a walkout at her crowded, run-down high school to protest for a better campus. Johns’s concerns reached the NAACP, and a subsequent lawsuit became part of the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. Today, it’s possible to visit the high school, now the Robert Russa Moton Museum, including the auditorium in which Johns implored her fellow classmates to walk out.
An hour away in Richmond, walk through the historic Black neighborhood of Jackson Ward, where the Maggie L. Walker Historic Site—former home of the first Black woman in the country to own a bank—is located.
Many pivotal events in civil rights history took place in our nation’s capital, including the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Nearby, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial pays tribute to the civil rights martyr. Meanwhile, the landmark National Museum of African American History and Culture opened to great fanfare in 2016. More than a museum, according to inaugural director Lonnie G. Bunch III, it’s a pilgrimage home, to where it all began.
Some of the demands posed by civil rights activists eventually found a hearing in our nation’s capital, at the U.S. Supreme Court. Engaged visitors may want to view a court session themselves, or even make an appointment to visit their representatives at the U.S. Capitol.
The district is not all museums, memorials, and politics: “Chocolate City” celebrates Black culture with a calendar of festivals, while go-go music, the heartbeat of DC, thrums in the Shaw neighborhood year-round.
When to Go
In summer, the entire region is marked by sticky and swampy weather with high heat and humidity. Rent a car with air-conditioning: You’ll need it. Memphis rates among the hottest cities in summer, with highs reaching 91°F.
Washington DC is the coldest destination covered in this guide, with average low temperatures in winter dipping into the low 20s. It gets warmer as you go south. The transition from winter into spring that occurs in March is often marked by stormy weather, while Washington DC and Virginia may still experience wintery weather patterns. Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, and Washington DC are the rainiest destinations in this guide, with more than 100 days of rain each year.
Bookmark weather.gov to search for local forecasts by town or ZIP code. They are pretty reliable seven days out.
When the six-month hurricane season starts in June, weaker tropical storms affect this region. Check hurricanes.gov for the latest information on tropical storms. There are also several radar apps, such as Accu-Weather that are handy for when you are driving and wondering if it’s best to pull over at a rest stop and wait for a storm to pass.
Several events along the trail draw crowds and/or are worth planning a trip around.
At 6:01pm on April 4 of every year, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Ceremony takes place at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Onlookers stand in the museum’s courtyard as a new wreath is hung outside Room 306.
The Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee in early May draws thousands of people every year. Also in May, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute hosts an Anniversary Children’s March. This reenactment of the 1963 Children’s Crusade allows children and adults to walk in path of civil rights foot soldiers. It’s an incredible experience.
In the Mississippi Delta, Clarksdale’s Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival draws tens of thousands every August.
Fall and Winter
In Washington DC, the Annual Legislative Conference (Congressional Black Caucus Weekend) in the fall annually addresses many of the same issues from the civil rights movement. Also in DC, folks take the day of service aspect of King Day seriously, rolling up their sleeves for a variety of opportunities to volunteer. It’s a good day to visit the district if you’re in the mood to volunteer yourself.
- "With this superb book—at once a reference work and a travel guide—about locations pivotal to the U.S. civil rights movement, Douglas raises the bar for other historically oriented travel books...Laden with information, this affecting guide provides a nuanced and powerful representation of Black Americans’ fight for freedom and equality. For every library."—Library Journal
- “This guidebook provides a severely under-covered travel adventure, explained clearly, with impressive research breadth and depth. Journalist Deborah D. Douglas mixes history with contemporary knowledge to inspire civil rights-related travel as a concept and then illuminates how that concept plays out in 13 separate geographic locales.”—Society of American Travel Writers’ Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards
"Douglas uses her journalism skills to bring the history of these sites to life by profiling the people who make them what they are today, local restaurants to enjoy and even a playlist of music to enjoy along the way."—NPR
"Moon U.S. Civil Rights Trail, written by award-winning journalist and professor Deborah D. Douglas, opens up an opportunity for direct interaction with Black communities, landmarks, cultural staples and many overlooked yet significant locations in the history of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s."—NBC News
"The book is an invitation to explore that history [outside our front doors], and to embrace our role in shaping it for the better every day."—The Washington Post
"From the port where enslaved Africans entered America to the home where Medgar Evers was murdered, a new guidebook helps readers explore for themselves the history, the landmarks and the watershed moments of the Black American struggle for equality and justice."—Associated Press
- "It reads like a friend’s travel recommendation, not a stuffy guidebook, and captures the importance of each location...There are detailed maps and beautiful, full color photos which make you want to hop in the car and grab a plate of fried chicken from The Four Way. It’s a travel guide you won’t want to miss out on reading."—The Covington Leader
- "Douglas’ care for ethical travel involves utmost respect for the business owners and residents along the trail."—NewsNation Now
"With profiles of national leaders and local heroes, helpful timelines, a suggested playlist and personal insights, Deborah’s U.S. Civil Rights Trail guide is the perfect companion for a journey along the Trail. Her book enhances the experience of the movement and it offers a deeper dive into an important time in America’s history."—World Footprints
- "Award-winning journalist and author Deborah Douglas takes readers through an eye-opening journey in her book."—Travel Noire
"While some travel guides focus on history, few do so in the level of detail as Douglas’…Douglas carefully scrutinizes source material from the movement, synthesizing facts and sharing her own impressions."—The DePauw
"The book is filled with...moving moments — trials and struggles alongside triumphs and celebrations."—Memphis Magazine
- “The best sort of guide—one equal parts narrative, historical, and service-forward.”—AFAR Magazine
- On Sale
- Jan 12, 2021
- Page Count
- 544 pages
- Moon Travel