By turns inspiring and heart-rending, this journey from N’Orleans to Memphis and from Atlanta to Birmingham is a trip that should be on every family’s to-do.
By Maria De La O / Photos courtesy Billy Planer
A journey through America’s civil rights landmarks is a must for any family who wants to better understand Black Lives Matter and the times we live in.
Billy Planer of nonprofit tour company, The American Journey, explains the impact. These tours are meant to wake-up individuals to the idea that “what you do impacts me,” as well as to show “why we need to be involved in each others’ lives and give a damn.”
Planer says these journeys aren’t meant to be just a look at the history of the South, emphasizing that racism pervaded, and still pervades the North, the South and everywhere in between in this country. “Unfortunately, America won’t be solving its race problem anytime soon. … We say, ‘This trip is only the beginning. Bring it home.’”
However important, consider holding off on such a transformational journey until the children become teenagers. Planer limits his trips to older kids, age 12 is typically the youngest, because the tours are “intense”—he refuses to sugarcoat the history—so it might be too much for the younger ones.
Whether part of an organized tour or independently planned trip, parents and kids alike will expand their understanding through the following stops on the Civil Rights Trail.
Civil Rights Memorial
Created by Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin, the memorial is located across the street from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which built and maintains the memorial.
The memorial is an installation made up of a circular black granite table where the names of civil rights martyrs are inscribed; the memorial chronicles the history of the movement in lines that radiate outward. Water emerges from the table’s center and on a granite wall behind the table is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s paraphrase of Amos 5:24: “We will not be satisfied ‘until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”
The memorial is just around the corner from the church where Dr. King served as pastor during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-1956. The Civil Rights Memorial grounds also include the Civil Rights Memorial Center, which features a 56-seat theater, exhibits, a classroom and the Wall of Tolerance. The wall digitally displays the names of more than half a million people who have pledged to take a stand against hate and work for justice in their daily lives. Their names flow continuously down the 20-by-40 foot wall. What’s more, visitors to the center can take the pledge and add their names when they visit. (Any outgoing kid will no doubt want to avail themselves of this opportunity.)
Unfortunately, the memorial center is currently closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, but should open up soon. Keep checking the website to get updated info.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice
This Montgomery outdoor installation is set on over six acres, dedicated to victims of racial terror as well as to the more than 4,000 victims of known lynchings that occurred between 1877 and 1950. The affiliated Legacy Museum gives a no-holds-barred look at the legacy of enslavement through the contemporary issue of mass incarceration.
Alabama State Capitol
In 1861, this is where the Southern states voted to enact the Confederacy, sparking the Civil War. A century later, this place became notable in the annals of civil rights when, in the spring of 1965, the Selma to Montgomery March ended on the Capitol steps and Dr. King made one of his greatest speeches, to an estimated 25,000 people. In non-Covid times, you can book a private behind-the-scenes tour of the Capitol for $50.
Rosa Parks Museum
Located on the spot where Rosa Parks was arrested for not yielding her bus seat to a white man, which subsequently launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, now sits the Troy University Rosa Parks Library and Museum. Parks herself was at the dedication ceremony in 2000, exactly 45 years after she refused to give up her seat, and noted, “In 1955, when I was arrested … I had no way of knowing what the future held. I certainly never thought I would be remembered in such a grand manner.”
The museum features rotating exhibitions that in the past have focused on such diverse subjects as gun culture, women in African art and African-American participation in World War II.
Lowndes Interpretive Center
Enroute to Selma, and midway on the Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail in Whitehall, is the Lowndes Interpretive Center, which serves as a repository of information about the events that occurred in Lowndes County during the march: the death of seminarian Jonathan Daniels; the slaying of Viola Liuzzo, a white woman who assisted marchers by transporting them to Selma; and the establishment of a tent city, which housed families displaced by white landowners in the county. The tent city housed approximately 20 African-American tenant farmers, who had tried to use their new right to vote and were subsequently evicted from the land they share-cropped. Some of these sharecropper families lived at the site in tents for as long as two years.
The center was closed at the time of this writing, although the park grounds remained open.
Edmund Pettus Bridge
Anyone who walks across this legendary bridge cannot help but feel the pull of history, imagining the scores of voting rights marchers, led by the young John Lewis and others, who were violently beaten by police on March 7, 1965. That day became known as Bloody Sunday.
The marchers tried again on March 21. This time they had court protection from Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., who weighed the right of mobility against the right to march and ruled in favor of the demonstrators. “The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups,” he said, “and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.”
On the second try, more than 3,000—versus the initial 600—marchers crossed the bridge on their way east to Montgomery. Marchers walked 12 miles a day and slept in fields. By the time they reached the capitol on Thursday, March 25, they were 25,000-strong. Less than five months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. No coincidence.
The museum is located in the actual courthouse that sits just a few blocks from where Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, grew up, and not far from where her childhood friend Truman Capote (and celebrated author in his own right) lived with his cousins. Our kids recently read Mockingbird, so they were especially interested in seeing the place that was the inspiration for the courthouse where Atticus Finch defended Tom Robinson in the classic novel of racial injustice.
The courthouse, restored to its original look in the 1930s, doesn’t host legal arguments anymore. Instead, it features exhibitions about both Harper Lee and Truman Capote.
Reopening March 1, this is the infamous place where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, shocking the nation. It’s now a must-visit site, home to the National Civil Rights Museum, one of the United States’ premier heritage and cultural museums. The motel itself has been carefully kept in its original form: You can see the balcony where King was shot, explore vintage cars in the parking lot and gaze at the original 1930s “Lorraine” sign, named for the owner’s wife, Lori.
The museum underwent a $27.5 million renovation in 2013 and 2014, adding new films, oral histories and interactive exhibits to the galleries. The result is an experience that’s been featured on the History Channel, CNN, in USA Today and as the focus of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306.
If you can, time your visit to coincide with one of the museum’s many topflight talks. For example, at the time of this writing, Chelsea Clinton and activist Ruby Bridges were set to host a virtual conversation about race, class and gender.
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans has a history as racially brutal and ultimately destructive as many other cities and towns across the South, but you’ll also find a big ol’ helping of lightness and celebration here. Not that New Orleans doesn’t have its problems—it’s consistently listed as one of the most murderous cities in the U.S. and its poverty transcends the infamous Ninth Ward—but the city also knows how to party down.
Even if it’s not Mardi Gras season, your family can see wandering jazz funerals, the famous Preservation Hall Jazz Band and even glimpse one of the famous Ellis family musicians playing at Snug Harbor bar (an establishment that one of ROAM’s editors infamously got kicked out of, quite a feat in a city that features drive-thru daiquiri and hurricane stands).
Plantation tours near New Orleans are popular with tourists to the area. You can find these tours all over the South. While they offer a look inside the pre–Civil War lives of “gentleman” farmers, they’ve also been criticized for glamorizing the era. Nowadays, you can host a wedding or enjoy a wine-tasting, browse slave owners’ family heirlooms and antique furniture, or see blacksmithing demonstrations on these properties. Decide for yourself about the plantations. We considered going to one, but opted to spend our time elsewhere.
Good to Know
Check out The American Journey – Billy Planer, a born-and-raised “proud son of the South,” will take you and your group on a three-day excursion from Atlanta to Montgomery to Selma to Birmingham and back with his nonprofit tour company.
Highlights include Sunday church services at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached back in the ’60s and where Georgia Senator Raphael G. Warnock currently presides; a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with a woman who was an 11-year-old protester in the 1965 Selma marches; and a visit with Fair Fight 2020, the Stacy Abrams PAC that works against modern-day voter suppression.
Know that the minimum group size for Planer’s civil rights tour is 20, so you might consider going with friends or making new friends at your hotel.
Study before you go – It’s a good idea for both you and your kids to learn a little more than is typically taught in schools about civil rights history. Our recommendations …
- Just Mercy author Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk, which examines some hard truths about America’s justice system, starting with the fact that a full third of our Black men will be incarcerated at some point in their lives.
- Selma, directed by famed director Ava DuVernay, this Oscar-winning film, a dramatized history of the Selma to Montgomery March, is a must-see, especially if you tend to have a little trouble getting your young’uns excited about museums (like I do).
- The Civil Rights Trail website
- Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabella Wilkerson
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
- Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- We Were Eight Years in Power and Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
- Check out more titles to inspire your travels on ROAM’s GoodReads page.
Maria De La O
Magazine editor. Documentary filmmaker. Copy expert. Mother. Traveler. Maria brings it all to the pages of ROAM.
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
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