Discovering a Different Side of the South on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail

Traversing 15 states and connecting more than 130 significant landmarks, the trail marks places where some of the nation’s most important events occurred.

An outdoor statue of seven enslaved people located along the Civil Rights Trail.

The U.S. Civil Rights Trail links landmarks which played pivotal roles in the fight for equity and equality.

Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon

Halfway through my trip along the Civil Rights Trail, I was re-evaluating my preconceptions. As a Black woman traveling through the Deep South, I’d been mostly concerned for my physical safety. However, it turned out it was my emotions that were in turmoil. While visiting the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, where motion-triggered audio recordings re-created verbal abuses that African Americans endured during the Jim Crow era, I cried. It wouldn’t be the last time.

On some level, my reaction didn’t surprise me. The Civil Rights Trail is intense because the history it covers is intense: Founded in 2018, its 130-plus sites honor Civil Rights–era events and activists across 15 states and Washington, D.C. What I didn’t expect was how profound my reactions would be—or that I’d be equally overwhelmed by the sense of community I found as I traveled through Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama.

The sign of Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

The Memphis hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Photo by Miranda Barnes

After my experience with fear at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, I wrestled with a wave of despair in the room of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Here, as in other destinations along the trail, I got to stand where those who fought for equality once stood, only to watch the dream die. And here, it had died quite literally, on the balcony of what is now the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

The fury that filled me at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, was perhaps to be expected. Its exhibits, told in first-person narratives and historical displays, track the links between slavery, lynching, segregation, over-incarceration, and police violence—the clearest depiction I’ve seen of the ways in which so many of the gains made by civil rights activists morphed into policies that continue to cause injustice against Black people today.

I took my anger to church, specifically, the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Dr. King served as pastor during the Montgomery bus boycott—and where the focus is still on his vision for a Beloved Community in which people are cared for and respected equally. I realized that I’d felt that community along my trip already: when a visitor was moved to sing protest songs in the National Civil Rights Museum; when a museum worker recommended her neighbor’s restaurant in Indianola, Mississippi; and here in the church, as our docent facilitated difficult conversations among our diverse tour group.

The experience ultimately left me with a different understanding of the South and of the country I live in, as well as a renewed passion for Black history and the importance of teaching it to all Americans. It also taught me that while change is never easy, it’s the beloved community that keeps you moving forward.

Lynn Brown is a Harlem-based journalist. Brown also writes for Fodor’s, Ebony, and Thrillist.
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