The US Civil Rights Trail: How to plan a civil-rights themed road trip in the South

After just 60 seconds of being yelled at, insulted and physically harassed while sitting at a mock-up of a lunch counter, I have to take off the headphones and leave. This uncomfortably immersive exhibit at Atlanta's Centre for Civil and Human Rights recreates the intimidation faced by the young black men and women who staged lunch counter sit-ins across America's South during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It's a visceral demonstration of their bravery and self-restraint in the face of terrifying verbal and physical abuse.

The museum does an uncomfortably good job of highlighting the rage-inducing inequality that existed throughout the South and the courageous actions of those who tried to stop it. It has compelling displays on the Freedom Riders, protesters who rode across the country in buses and were often met with violent beatings, and the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King made his famous "I have a dream" speech.

It's one of dozens of museums, churches and memorials that tell the story of America's civil rights movement. Until recently it was difficult to navigate these scattered historic landmarks, but last year saw the launch of the US Civil Rights Trail. This interactive website lists more than 100 locations in 15 states, making it easier than ever to plan a civil rights-themed road trip through the region.

Atlanta makes a good starting point because it's easy to get to (it has the world's busiest airport) and it's also where King was born and raised. At the sprawling Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park, you can tour his childhood home, visit Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached and pay your respects at his burial site.

It's easy to forget what a monumentally challenging task King took on. Not only was he trying to change the deep-rooted racism that was endemic throughout the South, but he also had to persuade people to risk their lives through non-violent protests. Watching footage of him speak is a timely reminder of what a charismatic character he was.

Heading west into Alabama, our next stop is the site of some of the movement's most violent clashes and bloodiest reprisals. When a Trailways bus carrying a group of Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 14, 1961, it was met by a mob of Ku Klux Klan members who attacked the occupants with iron bars and baseball bats. The KKK was also responsible for the bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four young black girls and injured 22 others. Incredulously, two of the four bombers were only charged in the early 2000s.

These events are recalled in heartbreaking detail in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This moving museum starts with an exhibit outlining the realities of segregation in the 1950s and '60s – blacks were forced to attend separate schools, sit in separate areas in buses, restaurants and cinemas, and use separate toilets and water fountains. That this was still happening in the same decade we put a man on the moon is almost unfathomable.

The museum goes on to document the many clashes between protesters and police, including the notorious Birmingham campaign of April 1963 when officers used tear gas, fire hoses and attack dogs to break up peaceful demonstrations. Eventually, President Kennedy had to send in the National Guard to protect protesters from Alabama's pro-segregationist governor, George Wallace, who famously attempted to stop black students from entering the University of Alabama by blocking the entrance.

Birmingham was also where King was arrested for protesting in April 1963 and where he penned his infamous "Letter from Birmingham Jail", in which he defended the use of non-violent resistance.

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The museum finishes on a more optimistic note by listing some of the many black Americans who've since risen to prominence. Sadly, King didn't live to see Birmingham elect its first black mayor, Richard Arrington Jr, in 1979, but he did at least witness Thurgood Marshall become the first black justice of the US Supreme Court in 1967.

Other notable sites in the city include the Bethel Baptist Church, which was bombed three times between 1956 and 1962, and Kelly Ingram Park, a former protest site that's now home to a commemorative statue of King plus three art installations that recall the terror and brutality of that time.

From Birmingham, we head north, across the Tennessee border, to Nashville. Although the city didn't experience the same level of conflict as the likes of Selma and Montgomery, it still played a pivotal role thanks to a three-month-long series of lunch counter sit-ins during early 1960. The protests led to the arrest of more than 150 students and the bombing of the home of their black lawyer, Z. Alexander Looby. After the bombing, more than 3000 people marched in silence to Nashville City Hall to confront Mayor Ben West about the escalating violence. West agreed that lunch counters should be integrated and on May 10, 1960, six stores served black customers for the first time.

You can learn more about these events in the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library. Also worth a visit is the Davidson County Courthouse, where there's a plaque commemorating the historic meeting plus a powerful installation of photographs called Witness Walls.

If you're like me, the US civil rights movement is one of those topics you have a broad understanding of from books, movies and TV. It's an entirely different experience to visit the places where these events took place and hear from the people involved. It also provides much-needed context for navigating the South, a part of America that manages to be intoxicating, intriguing and bewildering all at the same time.

FIVE MORE IMPORTANT US CIVIL RIGHTS SITES

MISSISSIPPI CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM

Opened in 2017, this confronting museum in Jackson, Mississippi, covers the entire civil rights movement but pays special attention to the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. See mcrm.mdah.ms.gov

EDMUND PETTUS BRIDGE

Now a National Historic Landmark, this bridge in Selma, Alabama is where protesters marching for voting rights were badly beaten by police – an event that became known as Bloody Sunday. See alabama.travel

NATIONAL CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM

The site of Martin Luther King's assassination in Memphis has been turned into a comprehensive museum detailing the civil rights struggle dating back to America's first use of slaves in the 17th century. See civilrightsmuseum.org

INTERNATIONAL CIVIL RIGHTS CENTRE & MUSEUM

Located in the original Woolworth​ department store in Greensboro, North Carolina where four black students staged the first lunch counter sit-in on February 1, 1960, this museum pays homage to the event and the movement it inspired. See sitinmovement.org

ROSA PARKS MUSEUM

Housed within Troy University in Montgomery, Alabama, this museum celebrates the life of civil rights icon Rosa Parks, whose arrest after refusing to move to the back of the bus on December 1, 1955 led to the Montgomery bus boycott. See troy.edu

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/usa

civilrightstrail.com

visittheusa.com.au

FLY

Virgin Australia and Delta Air Lines fly to cities throughout the South, including Atlanta, Birmingham and Nashville. See virginaustralia.com; delta.com

Rob McFarland was a guest of Virgin Australia, Brand USA, Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, Alabama Tourism and Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation.

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