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  • Nashville Broadway
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    Nashville, Tennessee: Birthplace of Desegregation

  • Stax Museum of American Soul Music
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    Memphis, Tennessee: Onward to Freedom

  • Downtown Oxford, Mississippi
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    Oxford, Mississippi: Literary Landmark

  • Greyhound Bus Station on FreedomTrail
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    Jackson, Mississippi: Activism’s Anthem

  • Tuscaloosa Bryant Denny Stadium
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    Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Tragedy and Defiance

  • Edmund Pettus Bridge
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    Selma and Montgomery, Alabama: The March

  • Tuskegee Downtown
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    Tuskegee, Alabama to Albany, Georgia: Soaring and Singing

  • Forsyth Park
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    Savannah, Georgia: Coastal Charm

  • Atlanta King Center Eternal Flame
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    Atlanta, Georgia: Dr. King’s Legacy

  • mural in downtown Birmingham
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    Birmingham, Alabama: Somber Reflections on the Past

National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel
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The Civil Rights History Trail

By

  • Route distance:
    0
  • Suggested Time:
    1-2 weeks

Charting a Course through History in the American South

Black America’s struggle for racial equality came to a head in the 1950s and ’60s, when nonviolent protests met an entrenched resistance and turmoil swept across much of the Southern U.S. This four-state ramble follows segments of the Civil Rights Trail, visiting celebrated cities and sleepy hamlets, moss-draped byways and riverside levees, all in pursuit of honoring the heroes of those volatile days.

01
Nashville Broadway
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Nashville, Tennessee: Birthplace of Desegregation

Fly into Nashville, rent a car and start your tour where much of the civil rights movement began: at a lunch counter. In 1960, Woolworth on 5th was where black college students gathered to stage sit-ins — today, it’s a full-scale restaurant where you can dine on shrimp and grits while soaking up history. Among the city’s most riveting sites: the Witness Walls, depicting the marches and Freedom Rides that helped Nashville become the South’s first desegregated town.

Because man cannot live on history alone, take in some of the city’s famous country sounds at a honkytonk on Broadway, or at the acclaimed Station Inn, known for its bluegrass and roots acts. Wander the exhibits celebrating the likes of Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and other legends at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and then get a true taste of the town by seeking out that Nashville specialty known as the hot chicken sandwich. A spiced-up version of the Southern classic, it’s been served at spots like Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack for generations.

341 km
3 hours by car
02
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
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Memphis, Tennessee: Onward to Freedom

The novelist Alex Haley, who wrote the famed novel-turned-television-series “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” about his family’s African ancestry, grew up in the quaint town of Henning, Tennessee, just an hour outside of Memphis. On your way to town, stop for a tour at the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center to learn more about the Haley family stories that inspired the Pulitzer Prize winner.

Drive an hour further to the funky Mississippi River city of Memphis, known for Elvis, barbecue and Beale Street blues, but also a major civil rights center. At the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, the dark cellar drives home the desperation of runaways who hid there for weeks, waiting to escape north. More recent events unfold at the National Civil Rights Museum, built around the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

But there’s a joyful side of history here as well, rooted deep within the blues and soul music that put this town on the international map. Don’t miss the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, just off the main drag known as Beale Street, where you’re encouraged to dance in front of the displays. Then head down the street to indulge in the sweet potato pies at The Four Way, a restaurant favored by soul legend Aretha Franklin. And don’t even think about leaving town without a taste of smoked pork — barbecue greats like Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous or Central BBQ are tried-and-true favorites.

138 km
1.5 hours by car
03
Downtown Oxford, Mississippi
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Oxford, Mississippi: Literary Landmark

Steer south to Oxford, Mississippi, an oak-shaded college town known for its bookstores, its ties to novelist William Faulkner and its statue of James Meredith, who won a Supreme Court case to become the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi. Pick up some chicken-on-a-stick at the iconic Four Corners Chevron gas station — a favorite with generations of hungry university students — before a solemn visit to the ruins of Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, in the town of Money. In 1955, the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, accused of being flirtatious with a white female shopkeeper, ignited the civil rights movement.

259 km
2.5 hours by car
04
Greyhound Bus Station on FreedomTrail
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Jackson, Mississippi: Activism’s Anthem

It’s a breezy two-hour drive to Jackson, the soulful state capital, where the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is a stunning new interactive tribute to the cause, complete with a central space where “This Little Light of Mind,” the movement’s unofficial anthem, might bring you to tears. Pay your respects to the Freedom Riders at the Greyhound bus station on Lamar Street. Police eventually arrested more than 400 of the young activists who challenged segregation on public buses.

299 km
3 hours by car
05
Tuscaloosa Bryant Denny Stadium
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Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Tragedy and Defiance

Heading east, continue to Tuscaloosa, home of University of Alabama and also home to a major civil rights moment: In 1963, President John F. Kennedy defied the state governor, George C. Wallace, and sent troops to protect two black students entering the college in what’s known as the “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” incident. These days, Tuscaloosa is a mid-size Southern city with a hefty dose of Southern charm. Stretch your legs with a walk under the stately oaks that border the Black Warrior River along the paved Riverwalk trail, or grab an oyster po’boy and settle in for a picnic at the stately Capitol Park, once the site of the Alabama state capitol.

166 km
2 hours by car
06
Edmund Pettus Bridge
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Selma and Montgomery, Alabama: The March

Head southeast along Route 82 to Selma, Alabama. The name is familiar from 1965’s right-to-vote march, during which local authorities reacted violently to the crowds. Under protection of the United States National Guard, 8,000 marchers eventually reached Montgomery on foot days later. You can drive the entire 86-kilometer National Historic Trail, but start by walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the marchers initially tried to cross and met confrontation. In Montgomery, pay your respects to the black woman who famously refused to move to the back of a bus at the Rosa Parks Library and Museum.

251 km
3 hours by car
07
Tuskegee Downtown
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Tuskegee, Alabama to Albany, Georgia: Soaring and Singing

Less than an hour east there’s soaring history to applaud in Tuskegee, home to the World War II aviators who were the first African American soldiers trained as pilots in the Army Air Corps — and who therefore paved the way to a more inclusive U.S. military. The Tuskegee History Center offers a riveting review of the struggles that led to the founding of the training ground at Tuskegee Institute, and also of larger role that this powerful act played in the fight to end racial discrimination in the years that followed. Then continue southeast to Albany, Georgia, home to the Freedom Singers, whose rendition of “We Shall Overcome” has been a civil rights chorus for over 50 years; their monthly concerts at the Albany Civil Rights Institute are worth planning for.

360 km
3.75 hours by car
08
Forsyth Park
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Savannah, Georgia: Coastal Charm

Roll down the windows for the drive east to the Atlantic Ocean — consider a stop in Midway for a barbecue lunch and a visit to the Historic Dorchester Academy, where Martin Luther King Jr. came to rehearse his speeches and relax. Savannah is one of the jewels of the South, a coastal city of flowering squares, cobbled streets and gracious mansions. Get an overview of its role in black history at the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, housed in a building that was once the area’s largest all-black bank. Give yourself time to explore the galleries and brewpubs of River Street and Factors Walk, and don’t miss sunset drinks watching the freight ships glide by.

399 km
3.75 hours by car
09
Atlanta King Center Eternal Flame
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Atlanta, Georgia: Dr. King’s Legacy

Put the sunrise in your rearview mirror and head four hours inland to Atlanta, where you should unpack for at least a couple of days. This major metropolis is home to the massive Georgia Aquarium (whale sharks!), World of Coca-Cola (soda tastings!) and Centennial Olympic Park (synchronized fountains!). But most profound is The King Center, which includes the house where Martin Luther King Jr. was born and the crypt where he and his wife are buried. The new National Center for Civil and Human Rights puts many of the sites you’ve visited in brilliant context. If you're here on a Sunday, you’re welcome to attend services at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King preached until his death.

236 km
2.5 hours by car
10
mural in downtown Birmingham
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Birmingham, Alabama: Somber Reflections on the Past

From Atlanta, you can follow the route of 1961 activists who boarded a Greyhound bus to challenge segregated seating, and were attacked in Anniston, Alabama. The Freedom Riders National Monument marks the spot where the bus was burned and the riders beaten. Continue west another hour to Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city, for a visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, home to some of the movement’s most sobering mementoes: “white” and “colored” water fountains, photojournalist Spider Martin’s pictures of the Selma march and the jail cell bars behind which Dr. King drafted his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Beyond the city, the Appalachian foothills beckon you to reflect among the waterfalls and rhododendron before heading back to Nashville.