As Americans continue to address long-term problems of social injustice, many people seek out the context of history to reveal how these are by no means new phenomena. Discussing these issues with your children can be especially uncomfortable, as youngsters generally don’t have a sense of the history of racial issues, especially here in the South where so many of the most historic struggles against inequality have taken place.
Fortunately, the region has not attempted to completely conceal the often shameful history that surrounds the civil rights struggles of the 1960s that occurred right here in their own proverbial backyards. Some of the most compelling stories of powerful and meaningful actions against oppression took place in major Southern cities, and there are important memorials and museums dedicated to civil rights scattered across the Southern states.
If you’re ready for a road trip and looking for a way to help educate your children and give them some important historical context into the national discussion that will ultimately be part of their own future, here’s an itinerary that can be undertaken as a three-day weekend tour of major civil rights landmarks in three Southern cities that were right in the midst of the struggle: Memphis, TN; Jackson, MS; and Montgomery, AL. Whichever city you choose as a starting point for your expedition through history, they’re all located within a triangle with no more than a three- to four-hour drive between them, so you can spend the day visiting museums, grab a meal, and travel to your next site. To help out, we’ve also included a hotel of historical significance in each town and a couple of Black-owned restaurants where you might choose to contribute some of your spending money during your trip.
5 Southern Civil Rights Museums Within Driving Distance
You can’t talk about the struggle for civil rights in the South during the 1960s without paying reverence to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was of course instrumental in organizing activists and preaching principles of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience to draw attention to issues of racial injustice. From the pulpit of his home church, Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, to the streets of Montgomery, AL, where he was an organizer of the city’s bus boycotts to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech, MLK was in the absolute center of the American consciousness and conscience during the civil rights movements of the 1960s.
Memphis was another important venue for his timeline, and not just for the unfortunate end of it when he was assassinated while standing on the balcony of room #306 at the Lorraine Hotel on April 4, 1968. Dr. King had visited the Bluff City several times over the previous decade, campaigning for Black candidates, to give an oration at a local church, and throughout the year before his death, to assist in organizing a strike among Memphis sanitation workers who were fighting for improved pay and working conditions. It was to that group of strikers and other activists that King delivered his famous “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech the night before his death.
So Memphis is an entirely appropriate location for the National Civil Rights Museum, which is built adjacent to the Lorraine Hotel, where visitors can see the room and balcony where Dr. King spent his final hours. The scope of the exhibits goes far beyond just MLK and his connection to the site, though. The museum describes its mission as a place that “examines today’s global civil and human rights issues, provokes thoughtful debate and serves as a catalyst for positive social change.”
The permanent exhibits at the National Civil Rights Museum include more than 250 artifacts and 40 films, oral histories, interactive media that share the history of Black oppression and struggle over five centuries, focusing on the experiences of slaves, the student sit-ins of the 1960s, the Montgomery bus boycotts, the Freedom Riders of 1961 and the rise of the Black Power movement. The museum is appropriate for families, but some of the topics addressed in discussing the history of racial struggle could be difficult for younger children. To assist with preparing your family, the museum has graciously compiled an online family guide to visiting that reveals both the potentially challenging concepts like lynchings and riots, as well as where they are specifically addressed within the exhibits. They also offer some helpful leading questions and suggested readings to prepare your family for the visit. The museum recommends that the permanent exhibits are appropriate for children 12 and older.
Where to Stay
The Central Station Hotel is located downtown on South Main Street and has been a community fixture for more than a century, stretching back to its previous role as the main railroad terminal downtown. It still serves as the daily stop for Amtrak’s “City of New Orleans” train and the local Main Street trolley line. Now converted to a luxury Hilton Hotel as part of their Curio Collection, Central Station is convenient to many downtown activities. The lobby is especially cool, decorated with thousands of vinyl records and hosting a live DJ each evening to spin classic Memphis soul music from the era when Stax, Hi Records and Royal Studios ruled the airwaves. There’s even a private listening room if you want to enjoy a solo session with some classic soul.
Where to Eat
The Four Way Restaurant is a classic soul food diner in the middle of the “Soulsville” neighborhood around the corner from the aforementioned historic Stax Recording Studio, whose Museum of American Soul Music is worth a visit all on its own if we do say so ourselves. (And we did!) Dr. King was a big fan of their fried catfish, and they’re still serving up heaping plates of classic soul food items like neck bones in gravy, liver and onions, and salmon croquettes along with a delicious variety of vegetable side dishes.
Picking one barbecue spot in a town like Memphis is a risky proposition at best, and with apologies to downtown stalwart The Rendezvous, we’re pointing you to Cozy Corner where owner Desiree Robinson was recently named one of three inductees into the Barbecue Hall of Fame for 2020. She was lauded for her unique aquarium-style smoker and the fabulous smoked meats that come out of it every day (except Sunday and Monday). For a unique Memphis specialty, skip the ribs and sliced pork in favor of a plate of smoked cornish hen instead. Or why not order all three?
Although Jackson, MS, doesn’t always get as much attention for its role in the civil rights struggle as other Southern towns like Selma and Montogomery, AL, the area was the site of many major events of the movement, including the assassination of Medgar Evers, the killing of Emmett Till, lunch counter sit-ins and the Freedom Rides. In 2017, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum was opened downtown to share an unvarnished depiction of the state’s role in the often violent struggle for equality. While many of the historic incidents depicted inside the museum’s galleries and exhibits are darkly sad, there is a ray of hope, depicted by the central gallery dominated by a beautiful 40-foot-tall neon sculpture titled “This Little Light of Mine.”
The gallery spaces that surround the light display are presented in a sort of chronological order, but visitors can view them in any order since they concentrate on thematic representations like slavery, Black empowerment and activism. Each separate gallery returns to the central gathering spot. As more museum patrons stand underneath the sculpture, it symbolically grows brighter and the gospel music becomes louder in the background.
The depictions of violence against Black people in some of the galleries are jarring, but careful attention has been placed to allow for secluded spaces to view videos and artifacts so that visitors can take the time for introspection or skip over some specific exhibits that might be too difficult for children. But like the oppression of the times, some elements are unavoidable and lurk in the background. Passing from gallery to gallery, recordings of voices whisper hateful taunts into the air, and a series of signs display the victims of racial violence and lynchings in chronological order, dating back for more than a hundred years.
For a state that has been criticized for burying (or even glorifying) its own tragic history, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum pulls no punches, and the effect is powerful. The professionally curated displays are on par with any museum in the country, and the $90 million project is a truly important investment in coming to grips with history. The final gallery before the exit is more hopeful, titled “Where Do We Go From Here,” which asks visitors to take a little time to reflect on what they have seen during their time in the museum and how they will take it with them.
Where to Stay
The Historic King Edward Hotel is situated on the edge of downtown. It’s within walking distance of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the adjoining Museum of Mississippi History, which focuses more on the archeology and culture of the state and can be visited as part of a special combination ticket option. Now part of the Hilton Garden Inn family of properties, the King Edward was originally known as the Confederate House and was destroyed during the Civil War. Rebuilt afterward in the 1920s as a gorgeous Beaux Arts-style edifice, the building is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Where to Eat
During the post-WWII boom of the late 1940s, the Farish Street district of Jackson was known as the “Black Mecca of Mississippi” and “Little Harlem,” as its streets were lined by Black-owned businesses, restaurants and entertainment venues. The area fell into disrepair during the second half of the 20th century but is now in the process of a slow revitalization under the auspices of a Farish Street Historical District movement.
While many of the storefronts are still boarded up, you can still taste bits of the street’s past at spots like the Big Apple Inn, which has been serving their famous local delicacy of pig’s ear sandwiches for more than 80 years. (Don’t knock them until you’ve tried one!) The fourth generation of the same family still operates the small restaurant where in the 1960s civil rights leaders met to plan their courses of action, including organizing the Freedom Rides. If those pig ears are a little exotic for your palate, you can also enjoy a menu of burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches and their signature dish of “Smokes,” griddled ground hot sausage served on a bun.
Just a block from the Big Apple Inn is Johnny T’s Bistro & Blues, the former home to one of Farish Street’s most legendary performance venues, the Crystal Palace, where acts like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington performed during the neighborhood’s heyday. Photos of past performers still adorn the walls of Johnny T’s, which has been converted into a luxurious cocktail lounge with a surprising selection of top-shelf spirits, along with a restaurant serving an array of elevated Southern cuisine including coastal seafood specialties. Upstairs has been converted into the 540 Ultra Lounge that again hosts musical acts and is available for private bookings.
When Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in December of 1955, Montgomery cemented itself as an important birthplace of the civil rights movement. The ensuing boycott of the city’s buses by Black riders finally ended a year later when the Supreme Court upheld a decision that this sort of segregation was illegal, a landmark early ruling in the battle for equal rights. The capital of Alabama was also the site of numerous student sit-ins, the site of ugly police interactions with Freedom Riders seeking to test the laws governing desegregation on interstate bus travel and other violent clashes between protesters and police during the 1960s.
Montgomery is home to several important sites along the US Civil Rights Trail that share stories of the ongoing struggle in the city and the state. Troy University operates the Rosa Parks Museum at the location where Parks was famously arrested. Historic markers on the street show where she boarded the bus to begin her ride into history, and the museum houses artifacts from her life and the era, including a reconstructed city bus like the one she was riding. Exhibits tell the story of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which Dr. King helped to found during the boycott, and an attached library is a repository of scholarly research about the civil rights movement through history.
A dramatic Civil Rights Memorial designed by Maya Lin, the same artist behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is situated downtown across from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s office building. A striking black granite circular table is inscribed with the names of those who gave their lives as part of the struggle for civil rights, radiating out from the center of the monument like the hours on a clock. A sheen of water flows across the surface of the granite, echoing MLK’s pronouncement that “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Of all the monuments in Montgomery, none is more powerful and emotional than The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Opened to the public in 2018, the somber six-acre site sits alone in the middle of a field with more than 800 steel rectangles, the size and shape of coffins, hanging from the ceiling, each inscribed with the names of victims of racial violence and lynching in the United States. Each display also lists the state and county where the tragedies took place, revealing the breadth and reach of violent racism throughout the years, and almost 4,400 victims are listed as part of the exhibit.
The experience of seeing the representation of so much violence can be immensely sad, and the adjacent Legacy Museum attempts to put the jarring memorial within the context of the larger history of racial inequality and economic injustice in the United States. It’s a difficult and painful journey toward understanding the history of the South and its role in the struggle for civil rights, but it’s an important sojourn to make as we seek to come to grips with centuries of inequities and the demands for societal change that are ringing through the streets of America today.
Where to Stay
The Lattice Inn is a lovely little bed and breakfast in the middle of Montgomery’s historic Garden District. Conveniently located within a short drive of many of the Civil Rights Trail markers, it’s a great home base for your trip to Montgomery.
Where to Eat
The Barbara Gail Neighborhood Grill at the corner of Early Street and Oak Street has been a favorite breakfast destination since 2003. Serving up Southern classics like shrimp and grits or catfish and eggs, it’s a true taste of the neighborhood.
Martha’s Place is the pick if you have a powerful appetite because the buffet is piled high and long with a rotating selection of meats and homestyle veggies that will weigh down your plate. That’s okay, you’ll need the exercise to burn off those calories, and the warm atmosphere of the place and its employees ensures nobody will comment on your choices.
If you wish to continue your pursuit of knowledge in regards to Black history, check out this article: “The Nashville Walking Tour Everyone Should Take.”