The 1950s and 1960s aren't so distant in our history as a nation. But when I recently told some colleagues that I was visiting civil rights national parks down south, they had no idea what I was talking about. After all, they asked, what do national parks have to do with civil rights? The National Park Service not only protects the grand scenic vistas that we typically associate them with, but also sites that need to be preserved because they are key in our American identity. And the civil rights sites in Atlanta and Alabama fall into this category. Here is what I found:
1. You could easily spend the day at the Martin Luther King Historic Site in downtown Atlanta. Probably, one of the most memorable parts of the visit was listening to his speeches in the half-hour video in the Visitor's Center as well as standing not far from the original mule-drawn wagon that transported his casket during the funeral. From there, you can gaze all the way to the King Center across the street where his tomb and that of his wife, Coretta Scott King, sit side by side above a reflecting pool.
The site also has a petite rose garden where you can see peace poems written by children. Make sure you have time to tour the adjacent preservation district in this neighborhood, Sweet Auburn that was once home to a very well-to-do African American population. One of the Queen Anne style houses is the birth home of MLK -- it's definitely worth making a reservation for the visit. You'll be able to roam from room to room and hear stories of what board games MLK liked to play in the living room -- it was Monopoly; learn that adults and children sat and talked together at meal time, something that was unusual at that time; and see MLK's favorite room, the kitchen, where he would sit and eat his grandmother's home cooking.
2. Anyone who loves airplanes will delight in the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site that honors the all-Black squadrons of Airmen who were active in World War II. At this time, only Hangar 1 is open, but there's a wealth of artifacts here to keep you occupied. And this place isn't just for adults. Kids will enjoy trying to fold a silk parachute into a pack.
There are plenty of audio displays to listen to, mostly of Airmen or their instructors -- something that really makes the place come alive. You'll hear how the instructors put the men through a closet cockpit flight simulator so that they could learn to fly by instruments only. As one instructor said, "I can introduce rough air and make him pretty miserable...You can crack that thing and he [pilot] just steps out."
3. The Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail runs from Montgomery, Alabama to Selma with plenty of civil rights sites in both cities as well as a museum (The Lowndes County Voting Rights Trail Interpretive Center) in the middle and signs to other sites along the way. The 54-mile trail honors the African-Americans who sought their civil rights and, after two unsuccessful tries -- the first being the infamous Bloody Sunday -- finally made it to Montgomery to present their grievances to Governor George Wallace. Montgomery makes a good stop-over city to do the entire trail. And though the trail can be done in a day, to truly get the most out of it, you should spend a day doing all the sights just in Montgomery, and reserve an additional day to doing the Interpretive Center and the sites in Selma.
The woman who's most emblematic of civil rights movement may very well be Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery bus. And, though most of us may think we know the story, the museum that pays tribute to her is a must-see. Not only does it provide a dramatic re-enactment of the bus incident that puts you right there, but the rest of the museum provides plenty of details that I know I didn't learn in high school history class. These include how, once Rosa Parks was arrested, the people had only 4 days to print off flyers to mobilize their people for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. (And it's wasn't done by xeroxing, either, but by mimeograph machines.)
Another stop that's mandatory is the Dexter Parsonage , the house where MLK and his wife lived when he was pastor of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery. You have to make a reservation but, again, the visit is memorable, especially because of the guide, Shirley Cherry, who knows plenty of what went on in this house, including on the porch where you can still see the damage from the bomb that exploded while Dr. King's wife and baby were in the house.
After all of these museums, you may think why visit yet another one: the Voting Rights Trail Interpretive Center. That would be a mistake. Again, a wealth of information awaits, with plenty of surprises. For example, the video here is extremely emotional as it provides interviews with actual participants of the marches. And I learned that the center is on land where many African-Americans were forced to camp because they were thrown out of their houses after they had registered to vote. The exhibits provide artifacts from the marches, including photos of Bloody Sunday. Outside you can walk a short loop where signage explains the spot where the marchers passed and what the harsh reality of daily life in the tent was like.
On the south side of the Edmund Petus Bridge that leads into Selma and where the state troopers and sheriff's deputies waited to assail the marchers with tear gas and batons, you'll find the new location for the National Voting Rights Museum. Yes, another museum and another must visit in my book because there is no redundancy among all these venues. They all add to the story. Here you'll see actual quotes written on the wall from participants as well as some of the threatening utterances from the troopers. You'll also find shoe prints from the foot soldiers, the marchers themselves, who were by far, not the leaders; they were the ordinary people that were firm in their commitment to the cause for equality.