New U.S. Civil Rights Trail Book Highlights “History You Can Touch”

The travel guide, released in January 2021, gives readers a road map to exploring the legacy of the movement.

New U.S. Civil Rights Trail Book Highlights “History You Can Touch”

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. is one of myriad sites on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.

Courtesy U.S. Civil Rights Trail

After decades of work as a teacher, editor, and writer for publications like the Guardian, VICE, and Pacific Standard, Deborah D. Douglas experienced what she calls a “full-circle moment” with her first-ever guidebook, U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler’s Guide to the People, Places, and Events that Made the Movement.

“It encompasses everything that I’ve done and everything that I am as an African American, as a Black woman in this society, as a 30-plus-year practicing journalist,” says Douglas, the Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University in Indiana and a senior leader with the OpEd Project, which is dedicated to amplifying diverse voices of women, youth, and other underrepresented groups.

In the book, which was released by Moon in January 2021, Douglas zooms in on the new-in-2018 U.S. Civil Rights Trail, a joint initiative by several state tourism boards that connects the dots between schools, churches, museums, and other landmarks where activists challenged segregation and brought issues of social justice to the forefront in the 1950s and 1960s. (Many of these sites—though not all—are in Southern states.) And while the U.S. Civil Rights Trail website on its own is a robust resource, Douglas says she wanted to give many of the cities a “narrative arc” and provide readers with suggestions for interacting with the destinations in ways that are current.

To visit all of the places in the book in one shot would take a month, Douglas says, though she reported it weeks at a time: Starting in the summer of 2019, Douglas would leave Indiana on Wednesdays and travel by plane to a city she was researching—Atlanta, Memphis, Birmingham, Selma, Charleston, Greensboro, Washington, D.C., Little Rock. She interviewed Civil Rights leaders and local heroes, dined at Black-owned businesses, and wrote about her own impressions. She would return to Chicago on Sunday or Monday, and then do it all over again the following week. The result? A book that feels like the best sort of guide—one equal parts narrative, historical, and service-forward.

To learn more about the book, which was released on January 12, AFAR spoke with Douglas by phone.

How did you approach this reporting? Did you look at other guidebooks as models?

It was important to curate an experience and not just send people to museums. I like to say the phrase “narrative arc” a lot, but it’s what I set out to do—to create a narrative arc in each city so you’re going to be engaging with this history. It’s easy to become awestruck, but also to feel a lot of other emotions, like anger. Then I wanted readers to be able to decompress by having a meal at a Black-owned restaurant, or to go out at night to a Black-owned club.

It’s important to engage with these cities as they are now, and I wanted to create a full experience. I didn’t look at other guidebooks, though there’s some basic furniture that every [Moon] guidebook has. I just feel my value was authenticity, and so this book is written in my voice. I mean, you really feel me. You’re meeting the real Deborah.

You write in the preface of the book that this question was raised: “Why travel the Civil Rights Trail when you can read books, watch films, listen to podcasts, and learn about the history in any number of other ways?”

For some people, it can be a hard history to take, especially if it’s your particular family. But we also have a lot to celebrate. More important than that is: When have you ever seen a Black space amplified as a travel learning experience? I mean, when you look at guides for cities, how often do they send you to a Black community?

Too often, our communities are rendered through a deficit frame instead of an asset frame. Even though we live there, or have family roots, we don’t even have the presence of mind to really identify and appreciate the history that is right outside our front door. Then the powers-that-be curate cultural experiences that don’t really point us in that direction. I feel like curating it in this way is a paradigm shift and asset framing Black communities and the Black experience.

Douglas says she wanted each city featured in the guidebook to have a narrative arc.

Douglas says she wanted each city featured in the guidebook to have a narrative arc.

Photo by Von Sherrod; cover courtesy of Avalon Travel

Did you have a particular reader in mind when you wrote this?

I had a lot of readers in mind. First of all, the book is for African Americans, because it’s their story. It’s also for people who like history—history buffs, or people who are American history nerds. Because if you’re really interested in American history, then you want to go through every point of entry to understand this experiment that we’re part of.

I also bumped into busloads of kids on the road, and they didn’t have a lot of materials. There wasn’t a singular source that was right for this particular kind of journey that wasn’t a huge tome. This book is a good foundational book. It started as a travel book, but it ended up being a history book with an activist road map. And so it’s a book for allies of all races and ethnicities. For anybody who loves America.

In talking about life on the road, you’ve written, “This is history you can touch.” What do you mean by that?

The trick about the story of the Civil Rights movement is that we think that it was so long ago—at a time we can barely even imagine. But a lot of us on this earth now, we’re a part of that movement or have family members who were a part of it. So you can actually hear the stories and then go someplace and touch places and spaces that were critical to that period.

In Birmingham, you can go to the Civil Rights Institute and feel the bars of the Birmingham Jail that Dr. King was in. At the Busy Bee Cafe in Atlanta, where Dr. King and other Civil Rights leaders sat and ate, I sat and ate. There’s this dual line that runs right to us and through us.

Was there anything you felt during this trip that you didn’t expect to?

I felt like a big slacker. You go back, and you realize the risks that these people took, and how they were operating on so many different layers at a given time. I realized that these people had family lives. They were working. Many of them had gone to college. And they were risking their lives in a movement. When they got beat back, they got up and they did it again and again and again. It made me feel badly undereducated and unprepared. It made me think: What are the righteous risks that I take in my life on a daily basis? I feel coddled, and I get the right to feel coddled because they created that safety zone for me.

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This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Katherine LaGrave is a deputy editor at AFAR focused on features and essays.
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