Lonely Planet Writer

You can now follow in the footsteps of the US Civil Rights movement

The USA has launched a national Civil Rights trail on 16 January, the 155th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and Dr. Martin Luther King’s birth month. The US Civil Rights Trail links more than 100 museums, monuments, parks and historically significant places related to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The battles of this movement inspired similar pushes for civil rights worldwide and still serve as a model for activists challenging systemic injustice today.

The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama. Photo by Art Meripol

Though individual cities and states had previously put together Civil Rights trails, most notably Alabama, this is the first extensive inventory of structures related to the movement – and the first time they’ve been linked across state lines. Doing so should make seeing these important sites much easier for visitors, says Alabama Tourism Director Lee Sentell, who helped lead the push for a national trail. “By arranging more than 100 destinations on a map across 14 states, clusters emerge. Potential visitors can see how close locations are to one another,” he explains. “[It’s] a one-stop guide.”

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama
The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama is one of the sites on the Civil Rights trail. Photo by: Art Meripol

For example, visitors making a pilgrimage to Memphis for the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King this April can easily see that they’re just a short drive from the Emmett Till Museum in Mississippi, or Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, which was desegregated in 1957 with help from the National Guard.

The National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee
National Civil Rights Museum, Lorraine Hotel, Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by@ Art Meripol

More than just linking sites for visitors, the US Civil Rights Trail is likely to spur further historical documentation and preservation as local organizations search for locations in their communities that might be eligible to join the official trail. “Several states are now compiling in-state civil rights lists that include a wide range of major and minor locations,” says Sentell.

Little Rock Central High School
Little Rock Central High School, Arkansas. Photo by: Art Meripol

Though the trail is national, most of the sites are in the Southern USA. The region’s openly discriminatory laws, known colloquially as ‘Jim Crow’ legislation, were the main focus of activists. However, cities as far north as Wilmington, Delaware – home of Howard High School of Technology, one of the five schools cited in Brown vs. Board of Education – and as far west as Topeka, Kansas, where that lawsuit was argued, are also included on the trail.

“The common thread of all the 100-plus sites is reflected in the phrase ‘what happened here changed the world,’ ” Sentell says, citing the trail’s tagline.

Learn more about why we named the Southern USA as a top region to visit in 2018.

This article was originally published on 23 November 2017 and was updated 16 January 2018.