I can cite a number of reasons why someone might want to make a road tour through America’s Deep South.
Aside from the food, the scenery, the music and literature, my own personal list would include the region’s heritage.
A big part of that heritage involves the 20th century struggle against racism. Our desire to see how the 21st century South is dealing with that part of its past was the chief motivation for my wife and I to spend a week in early April visiting several civil rights museums in Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.
It turned out to be quite an education.
Flying from Spokane via Minneapolis, we landed shortly before dark in Memphis, Tennessee. Having only a week, yet wanting to see as much as we could, we chose to head south right away.
On the road to Birmingham, we stopped in Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Driving a rented orange 2019 Dodge Challenger, we felt like the Dukes of Hazzard (who, of course, drove an orange 1969 Dodge Charger called the General Lee).
In Birmingham, we stayed at the stately Tutwiler Hotel Hampton Inn, which is within walking distance of many of the city’s more important sites. One we most wanted to see, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, is a museum set up in a number of galleries that document the civil rights struggle. The museum’s overall focus is how that battle played out in Birmingham, also known as the Magic City – though because of its significance to the movement, Birmingham became known to many as the Tragic City.
The institute is part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Register Historic District. The space serves as a somber epitaph of the era, marked by a number of plaques and statues. Especially striking is one of a young man being confronted by a police officer and a snarling attack dog.
And, too, that’s where you can see the Four Spirits sculpture. This piece captures the figures of the four young girls – Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair – who were killed on Sunday morning, Sept. 15, 1963, when the nearby 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed.
Along with adjacent Kerry Ingraham Park, the historic district specifically commemorates a series of civil rights demonstrations that took place during the first week of May 1963. It was during those protests, which were televised nationally, that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested, resulting in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
We were particularly moved during a tour of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which sits directly to the north of the institute. Our guide was an elderly docent named Ted whose knowledge both of the building and of the era was surpassed only by his, yes, hospitality to a couple of travelers from the Inland Northwest.
Kelly Ingraham Park: www.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/al10.htm
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute: www.bcri.org
Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument: www.nps.gov/bicr
16th Street Baptist Church: https://16thstreetbaptist.org
After driving the hour and a half south from Birmingham, we arrived in Montgomery. We stayed at the DoubleTree by Hilton because, again, the central location allowed us to walk to most of our destinations.
Alabama’s state capital, Montgomery was a major center for the buying and selling of slaves. The city served that function up until the end of the Civil War. But its reputation as a symbol of oppression lasted far longer, a fact that several museums and monuments emphasize – as does a central city square that once served as a slave auction site.
Our most sobering visit was to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a starkly artistic outdoor installation funded by the Equal Justice Initiative. A legal nonprofit founded by the attorney and author Bryan Stevenson, the EJI was organized to aid prisoners wrongly convicted or too poor to obtain effective representation, especially those prisoners living in the Deep South.
The EJI’s outdoor memorial is a distinctly mournful tribute, an installation of life-size, coffin-shaped monoliths, each bearing names (by individual county and state) of the thousands of lynching victims throughout U.S. history. It seemed fitting that we were forced to leave earlier than we wanted due to a sudden midafternoon rainstorm, complete with the occasional lightning strike.
We boarded a shuttle to the EJI’s Legacy Museum, a walk-through, self-guided experience that details not just the rise of slavery but the post-slavery struggles – including mass incarcerations and wrongful convictions – that continue to the present day.
The next morning, we walked a few blocks to the Rosa Parks Museum. Parks was, of course, the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP who on Dec. 1, 1955, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus.
Parks’ arrest prompted the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted for 381 days and ended only when the courts ruled that Alabama’s segregation laws were unconstitutional.
Sponsored by Troy University, the establishment features two distinct sections. One is located in the adjacent children’s museum, which features an interactive bus encounter, while the other offers a more adult-oriented walk-through experience.
We joined a guided tour of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, which though established in 1877 is best known for the brief tenure (1954-60) of King as pastor and for being where the bus boycott was organized on the evening Parks was arrested.
We visited the offices of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the legal nonprofit that specializes in civil rights litigation. Most notable is the SPLC’s own Civil Rights Memorial, a dramatic street-side sculpture created by Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
And we walked to the Freedom Rides Museum, a smallish exhibition set in the city’s old Greyhound Bus Station. On May 20, 1961, a group of Freedom Riders stopped there. One bus was held up, its tires slashed and, after it fled, was later stopped, fire-bombed and the riders badly beaten.
National Memorial for Peace and Justice: https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial
The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration: https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/museum
Freedom Rides Museum: https://ahc.alabama.gov/properties/freedomrides/freedomrides.aspx
Rosa Parks Museum: www.troy.edu/student-life-resources/arts-culture/rosa-parks-museum
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church: www.dexterkingmemorial.org
Southern Poverty Law Center: www.splcenter.org
The longest leg of our trip was from Montgomery to Oxford, where both the University of Mississippi (aka Ole Miss) and William Faulkner’s estate – Rowan Oak – are located. It took us more than four hours to drive the 274 miles through the rolling green hills of the Alabama and Mississippi countryside.
Oxford offered us a bit of a break in that our main intention was not to seek out any civil rights sites but to visit Rowan Oak, home of one of America’s Nobel Prize winners for literature. And as we toured Oxford’s old-town square, I took the opportunity to visit the bookstore Square Books and purchase a collection of selected Faulkner short stories.
This set us up for our tour the next morning of Rowan Oak, where Faulkner lived with his family from 1930 until his death in 1962. The house, which sits a couple of hundred yards off an unpaved and rutted dirt road, feels much the way it must have when Faulkner lived there – though it does now have air-conditioning, something the writer apparently hated.
Even in bucolic Oxford, though, the specter of racism persisted. After leaving Rowan Oak, we drove through the university’s campus. And while touring tree-lined University Circle, we were reminded of the Ole Miss Riots of September 1962, which occurred when the university denied black student James Meredith the right to enroll – despite federal court rulings that segregation was illegal.
Rowan Oak: www.rowanoak.com
University of Mississippi: https://olemiss.edu
And so we returned to Memphis, a place we had visited and toured several years before. The city offers multiple tourist attractions, including Elvis Presley’s Graceland, the music and food venues of Beale Street, music-minded museums such as Sun Records (“birthplace of rock ’n’ roll”) and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and even the Big River Crossing – the longest public pedestrian bridge across the Mississippi River.
Despite its many charms, though, Memphis also is the city where King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. It is on the site of that murder, the Lorraine Motel, that the National Civil Rights Museum is located.
The preserved motel features the room where King stayed. Across the street is the museum proper, which was reopened in 2014 after renovation. The facility features a variety of exhibits and, as its website succinctly explains, “260 artifacts, more than 40 new films, oral histories, interactive media and external listening posts that guide visitors through five centuries of history.”
Far less well known, though, is the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, which is housed in a home built in 1839 by a German immigrant named Jacob Burkle. A livestock trader and bakery owner, Burkle is thought to have been part of the secret transportation line for runaway slaves. The problem is, little evidence other than oral accounts – including the testimony of Burkle’s late granddaughter – exists to back up the museum’s claims.
Regardless, a visit to Slave Haven is illuminating. Tours are held daily, and the information provided by the engaging guide who showed us around Burkle’s rather modest house – with its cellar hideaway and location so close to the Mississippi River – underscored everything we had learned previously in the South’s other, more-established museums.
The weight of all that evidence offers a virtual university education regarding the evils of the slave trade, the lengths to which desperate people resorted to escape it and how the legacy of both still affect the South of today.
It was that type of education, to be frank, that we were looking for all along.
The National Civil Rights Museum: www.civilrightsmuseum.org
Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum: http://slavehavenmemphis.com
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