23 places to begin your exploration of America’s civil rights history

Travel this rich and vast Southern trail to discover formally and informally recognized civil rights sites—and a legacy of remarkable courage

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Edmund Pettus Bridge

Photo by Art Meripol

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, 1964—60 years ago this summer. America’s paperwork finally matched its ideals: Discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin became illegal. None of this could have happened if Black Americans hadn’t pressed their case for enfranchisement, as they have done since the nation’s founding. On the South’s officially recognized Civil Rights Trail, towns across the region showcase curated stories of power and courage. Museums throughout offer engrossing narratives of a period marked by nonviolent, direct action as a tactic to confront and disrupt the status quo. Sites where establishment power violently clashed with newly empowered people living on the margins are preserved for understanding and engagement. Learn the names and backstories of those who marched, organized, and advocated in the service of this mission. On a rich and vast Southern trail, here are some formally and informally recognized places to explore this historic throughline that informs our present.

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Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market

Photo via mississippibluestravelers.com

Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market
Greenwood, Mississippi
Off U.S. 49 at Money Road stand the ruins of Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market. In 1955, Emmett Till, a boy of 14, had a fateful encounter with shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, her husband and his half-brother, later lynched him, catalyzing the modern civil rights movement. Next to the decrepit edifice stands a pristine period gas station, giving passersby a sense of the time and timelessness. This officially recognized Civil Rights Trail site invites travelers to imagine racial oppression as lifestyle, quotidian moments marinated in fear, made epic by how we respond.

Tallahatchie County Courthouse

Photo by Langdon Clay

Tallahatchie County Courthouse
Sumner, Mississippi
Inside the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, folks can view the courtroom where 14-year-old Emmett Till’s murderers faced a panel of all-white male jurors. The half-brothers got off scot-free. Standing in this space on a dusty Mississippi Delta day, visitors may contemplate the choices made in this courtroom in full color. For deeper context, walk across the street to the Emmett Till Interpretive Center.

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Little Rock, Arkansas
National Park Service rangers leading tours of Little Rock Central High School narrate the 1957 integration crisis when carefully selected Black students—known as the Little Rock Nine—battle-tested the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision. The site features a museum contextualizing a community in turmoil. Tourgoers stop by the preserved Magnolia Mobil Gas Station, a command center for journalists covering the crisis on national news. At the school, rangers describe throngs of angry white residents and Elizabeth Eckford, a 15-year-old Black girl, facing them down alone.

Lassis Inn

Lassis Inn
Little Rock, Arkansas
Enjoy the buffalo ribs, seasoned hush puppies, and fried green tomatoes at Lassis Inn historic restaurant, but remember the stories of civil rights greats like activist and journalist Daisy Bates, who ate and strategized here regularly in the years leading into the 1957 Little Rock integration crisis.

Mosaic Templars Cultural Center
Little Rock, Arkansas
Black life in the Arkansas capital is a complete story, filled with highs and lows, joy and pain. Located in the historic Ninth Street district, Mosaic Templars Cultural Center captures memories of Black residents worshiping together, finding community in segregated schools, and organizing efforts to equalize opportunities for Black residents. Fresh off a multimillion-dollar renovation, the center offers interactive exhibits, engaging murals, and dramatic sound showers.

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church
Montgomery, Alabama  
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was thrust into the spotlight when, as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he was selected to lead the 1955–56 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Before King became pastor in 1954, the Reverend Vernon Johns (uncle of Barbara Johns of the Farmville, Virginia, school walkout of 1951) urged this congregation to challenge the status quo. Tourgoers may enter the pulpit to see the upholstered seat King used during his tenure as pastor. Sunlight infuses the sanctuary’s stained-glass windows with a warm glow of purpose and possibility.

International Civil Rights Center and Museum

Photo via civilrightstrail.com

International Civil Rights Center and Museum
Greensboro, North Carolina
The International Civil Rights Center & Museum occupies the former F.W. Woolworth building, where four freshmen from the historically Black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College (as it was then known) launched the 1960s student sit-in movement. On February 1, 1960, the Greensboro Four quietly sat down and stayed until closing time despite being refused service. That original lunch counter is on display, providing a sense of the time in its department-store context.

William Frantz Elementary School
New Orleans, Louisiana
The fact that Ruby Bridges still is alive and well reminds us that her quest to integrate William Frantz Elementary School in 1960 at age six was not that long ago. The building little Ruby braved is preserved just as it was when she became the school’s first Black student. In the courtyard stands a statue of Ruby, and a historic marker recounts the story of her courage. Of all the iconic imagery that emerged from the mid-century movement, Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With” is among the most moving and a big part of why we know her story.

Dooky Chase’s Restaurant
New Orleans, Louisiana
Established in 1939 during the Jim Crow era, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant began as a street-corner po’ boy and lottery-ticket stand. It evolved into a fine-dining destination known for Chef Leah Chase’s Creole cooking and became a symbol of Black refinement and excellence. Situated in the historic Tremé neighborhood, the restaurant served as a safe haven for outspoken discussions and strategizing during the civil rights movement. Today, Dooky Chase’s is among the 15 places recognized by the Louisiana Civil Rights Trail. A historical marker out front honors the Chase family’s contributions.

Freedom Rides Museum
Montgomery, Alabama
Freedom Riders were interracial activists who challenged the South’s refusal to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1960 interstate bus-desegregation decision. Traveling south from Washington, D.C., they were attacked by white mobs at stops along the way. See the faces of these activists in black-and-white mugshots inside Freedom Rides Museum—a Greyhound bus station preserved in its 1961 state. Learn about the violence they faced and how the Black community protected them. (By the way, it worked: The Interstate Commerce Commission began enforcing its desegregation ruling on November 1, 1961.)

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Birmingham, Alabama
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in the city’s Civil Rights District explores the inequality of Black life and reveals how systemic racism surfaced in every aspect of life during Jim Crow, from learning and working to worshipping and relaxing. A high point is touching the bars of the cell in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote Letter From Birmingham Jail.

Kelly Ingram Park

Kelly Ingram Park
Birmingham, Alabama
What many people know about the civil rights movement comes from black-and-white imagery of police beating peaceful protesters or loosing attacking dogs on them. Some of us recall videos of water cannons powerful enough to blow the hair off young activists’ heads. These images were born here at Kelly Ingram Park, staging area for the 1963 Birmingham Campaign. Take a self-guided walking tour (or hire a local tour guide) to see sculptures and monuments that illustrate the risks these advocates took.

16th Street Baptist Church
Birmingham, Alabama
For a time, Birmingham was known as “Bombingham” because of segregationists’ use of explosives to enact violence on the Black community. A bomb was the go-to on the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, when four girls perished while getting ready for a special program at 16th Street Baptist Church. Tours here reveal their story, the aftermath, and the contributions of this downtown church situated in the Birmingham Civil Rights District. Be sure to view the memorial marker for the girls and know their names: Addie Mae Collins, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14.

Edmund Pettus Bridge
Selma, Alabama
Determined to complete a 54-mile trek from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights in 1965, activists tested the limits of nonviolent direct action at Edmund Pettus Bridge. On three occasions, marchers tried to cross the bridge, and one of those attempts is now known as Bloody Sunday. On March 7, 1965, peaceful walkers suffered attacks by law-enforcement officers wielding clubs, bullwhips, and tear gas. The protesters finally crossed the bridge on their third attempt, when federal officers intervened. Commemorate the Selma to Montgomery March by pulling to the roadside on U.S. 80 next to the “Welcome to Historic Selma” sign to visit Civil Rights Memorial Park. The space features monuments to voting rights legends such as Amelia Boynton Robinson and Marie Foster.

Mothers of Gynecology Monument
Montgomery, Alabama
Montgomery, Alabama tour guide and artist Michelle Browder (read about her ideal civil rights journey on page XX) can’t help but scoff at a monument to Dr. J. Marion Sims in front of the Alabama State Capitol. Lauded as the father of gynecology, Sims built his 19th century body of work by torturing enslaved Black women. His statue now looms over a commemorative space dedicated to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March. Browder, who comes from an impressive civil rights lineage, counters the Sims narrative with the 15-foot Mothers of Gynecology Monument she designed and built. Find this tribute to Lucy, Betsey and Anarcha—Sims’s enslaved victims—at 17 Mildred Street, near the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel

National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel
Memphis, Tennessee
The deep and somber melody of Mahalia Jackson’s rendition of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” draws museumgoers down a hallway to glass-encased Room 306 at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Covers on a bed in which the Rev. Ralph Abernathy slept are still downturned. The bed of his roommate—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—is untouched. The brotherhood and Black joy that filled this room and an earlier pillow fight are belied by what happened after: King’s assassination. The sniper’s nest, now curated in a museum annex, can be seen across the way.

Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change (The King Center)
Atlanta, Georgia
Consider a visit here a pilgrimage of a lifetime. Nestled in the Sweet Auburn Historic District, the King Center uses exhibits and personal artifacts to contextualize the life of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, who brought her own bona fides to the Black freedom movement. Outside, you’ll find the couple’s marble tomb situated in the middle of a blue reflecting pool. An eternal flame symbolizes Dr. King’s undying dream of justice, peace, and equality. And that sculpture of a muscular Black man holding a newborn up to the sky? This is the Behold Monument, which Mrs. King placed in tribute to her late husband.

Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park
Atlanta, Georgia
Explore many points of entry into Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life at several sites in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood, managed by the National Park Service. These include his Auburn Avenue Queen Anne–style birth home (currently under renovation); the original Ebenezer Baptist Church (readily identifiable by its iconic blue sign); and Fire Station No. 6. Stop at the Visitor Center for tour info, which is also where the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame begins.

Muhammad Ali Center

Muhammad Ali Center
Louisville, Kentucky
The Muhammad Ali Center is a cultural space and museum that showcases Ali’s ascendance as a child born in the segregated South who learned the art of boxing to channel his anger over a stolen red bicycle. As the movement grew, so did Ali’s success, clinching the world heavyweight championship in 1964. A favorite exhibit recalls his Deer Lake training camp, where museumgoers can shadow box and hit a speed bag. Outside the ring, Ali’s heroic symbolism united leaders in the Black freedom struggle, and the Muslim convert’s antiwar beliefs mirrored the movement’s stance on the fallacy of war. A Life magazine on display situates the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March in Ali’s timeline. Letters, images, and films reveal how his community supported his talent in the Jim Crow era, connecting everything that was Ali to every opportunity the movement fought for.

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum
Jackson, Mississippi
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum encapsulates Black Mississippians’ efforts to secure full enfranchisement. History springs to life in exhibits that include a lynching display featuring an exhaustive list of victims’ names. Film, sound, ephemera, and touchable, interactive displays throughout offer context to local organizing efforts and the backstories of courageous leaders such as Medgar Evers, the assassinated NAACP field secretary, and Fannie Lou Hamer, a voting rights leader from the Delta. The door to Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in Money, Mississippi, is showcased as a metaphorical doorway to the event that gave the movement momentum: the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till.

National Museum of African American Music
Nashville, Tennessee
The Nashville Movement sealed Music City’s place of honor on the Civil Rights Trail with its pivotal leadership in civil disobedience. The National Museum of African American Music reinforces this cultural power with a sonic and interactive journey through 400 years of Black music greatness. Make a beeline to the museum’s One Nation Under a Groove gallery to hear, feel, and see the intersection of the movement with musical history. Nashville, particularly in the historic Jefferson Street neighborhood and downtown, honors the city’s music contributions at local institutions and with markers placed throughout the city.

The Legacy Museum
Montgomery, Alabama
From slavery and Jim Crow to the civil rights movement and mass incarceration, the Legacy Museum fully excavates the African American experience through artifacts, anecdotes, hard data, and artistic expression. This self-guided space allows visitors to absorb the personal histories of people and communities affected by systemic injustice. One can’t help but consider the historical record against the modern-day manifestations of systemic inequality.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Courtesy Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce CVB

National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Montgomery, Alabama
Unforgettable corten-steel slabs–more than 800 of them–represent the 4,400-plus Black people killed in racial terror lynchings from 1877 to 1950. This six-acre setting is the nation’s first comprehensive lynching memorial and makes one thing clear: If you didn’t know, now you know.

Deborah D. Douglas is author of U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler’s Guide to the People, Places and Events That Made the Movement, the first guide to the official civil rights trail in the South. She is a journalism professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School.

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Sybil Jordan Hampton

Illustration by Matthew Laznicka

Sybil Jordan Hampton, the only Black student in her class at Little Rock Central High School from 1959–1962
The ideal civil rights journey for Sybil Jordan Hampton is the one she’s not yet taken: a trip to Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville, Virginia. She has an abiding interest in and admiration for Barbara Johns Powell, the Robert Russa Moton High School student who organized Black students in the early 1950s to demand better educational facilities. Their grievances were rolled into the five cases that formed Brown v. Board of Education. “Farmville has similarities to Little Rock in that the schools were closed in an effort to thwart the Supreme Court decision to desegregate,” Hampton says.

Michelle Browder

Illustration by Matthew Laznicka

Michelle Browder, artist and tour guide
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s wisdom was displayed on January 30, 1956, when segregationists bombed his home, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage in Montgomery, Alabama. When King returned and found his wife, Coretta, and daughter, Yolanda, safe, he urged angry, armed neighbors to go home. This decision still resonates with Michelle Browder, who says her ideal civil rights journey includes this Centennial Hill house, now Dexter Parsonage Museum. King’s faith was made real in this moment: “He becomes a pacifist,” Browder says, crediting King’s calls for self-restraint with saving Black lives.

Nick Wallace

Illustration by Matthew Laznicka

Nick Wallace, chef and Food Network Star
At age 10, Nick Wallace became enthralled by Medgar Evers, the NAACP field director gunned down in his driveway on June 12, 1963. In Evers’s honor, Wallace learned to make the late activist’s favorite foods—oysters and pasta. After becoming a Chopped winner, Wallace opened Nissan Cafe by Nick Wallace at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum campus in Jackson, Mississippi. He recommends visitors also check out the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience (the Max) in Meridien. The museum celebrates the state’s artists and explores their cultural contributions, like blues and gospel music. So while Wallace engages Evers’s story daily while cooking, he complements the experience by reveling in the creativity, vision, and dignity of people the movement served at the Max.

Barbara Lau

Illustration by Matthew Laznicka

Barbara Lau, founding executive director of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice
Barbara Lau, who is based in Durham, recently took a trip from New Orleans east through southern Mississippi, Montgomery, and Atlanta. The highlight was the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. “The work they’re doing in Montgomery right now is—for me as a person who has participated in the creation of exhibits and worked at historic sites—creating some of the clearest, most well-designed experiences I have ever had.” Describing an “ingenious” mix of historical materials, videos, audio, and holograms with the work of creative artists, Lau says museumgoers can truly imagine the lives of people affected by America’s approach to race and inclusion.

This article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Southbound.

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