Civil Rights Trail to foster tourism through the civil rights era

The US Civil Rights Trail, a digital map connecting significant historical sites in the Civil Rights Movement across the U.S. will be launched during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

The trail, stretches through 14 states from Topeka, Kansas through the heart of the civil rights movement in the south to Washington, DC and covers more than 130 landmarks, which represent important sites where significant events that shaped the civil rights movement occured.

Organizers of the trail hope visits to the website will spur interest in the educational and historical significance of civil rights landmarks and prompt tourism ventures.

“The interest in these anniversaries will drive interest in visiting these sites,” said Kevin Langston, Deputy Commissioner of Georgia Tourism.

Langston says the trail which has been in development for the last 12 months captures landmarks across the country that have had an impact in the civil rights history and had not been previously collected in one easy site.

The landmarks are home to civil and human rights struggles associated with the history of the 1950’s and 1960’s, which led to the attainment of civil and human rights for African Americans and the abolishment of the suppressive Jim Crow laws.

Langston says the idea to create the Civil Rights trail which originated from the Alabama Tourism Office, resulted in joint efforts by Georgia State University and Travel South to make the trail a national intiative. The trail is designed to offer an immersive experience into the historical landmarks, providing visitors the ability to view photos, writings and memorabilia significant to the movement. By having digital access to the landmarks, Langston says visitors are drawn into visiting the actual site.

According to Langston, the trail targets the traveller interested in learning about the cultural aspect of an area from the perspective of the civil rights era. He says the website will help domestic and international visitors discover important sites to visit in the US and across state borders.

Langton said the trail has generated interest from German and British tourism companies interested in arranging tours.

The story behind the landmarks

Jeanne Cyriaque, a consultant with the Georgia Department of Economic Development said the tour also features some of the least known historical landmarks in the country, giving them visibility within the civil rights scope.

“It’s important to tell these stories, some are triumph some are sad,” she said.

Cyriaque mentions the sad history related to the arson attack on the 16th street Baptist church in Birmingham, where 4 girls were killed and 22 other parishioners injured during Sunday school.

“Some of these events were rather horrific!,” she says. But she adds knowing what happened in specific sites shapes individual understanding and interpretation of the events that shaped the movement.

Churches played a big role during the civil rights movement, she said. They were considered the only safe mass meeting places during the 50’s and 60’s. As a result, civil rights leaders organized and discussed their agenda during such meetings. That explains the presence of several churches as landmarks along the trail.

Preserving this heritage is important.

“It is important to soak in these historical landmarks, so we do not repeat the same mistakes, and at the same time honor those that have brought the United States far from a sometimes-challenging past,” said Liz Bittner, president and CEO, Travel South USA (TSUSA), whose group organized the connection of the sites.

Bettner said visits to the website could spur local and international interest in landmarks in rural areas that are rarely visited. Some of these sites located away from urban centers could be forgotten, yet very symbolic of the movement. She sees the site as a tool to increase economic development in the areas.

Travel South USA has created the U.S. Civil Rights Trail Marketing Alliance to oversee the administration of the trail. The Alliance is led and funded by directors of each state's tourism organization.

Georgia has 11 landmarks included in the US Civil Rights Trail. Among them, the Albany Civil Rights Movement MuseumEbenezer Baptist Church, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the Carter Center. Ten of the landmarks are within the Metro-Atlanta area.

That is where history was made

Bernard Lafayette Jr., a senior scholar in residence at Emory University lived through the tumultous civil rights era. A long time civil rights activist, he was instrumental in organizing the Selma Voting rights movement among other initiatives.

He says reading through history books isn’t enough.

He just completed a bus tour of the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum with some students. After the tour, he observed the students knowledge transform into a deeper understanding of the sacrifices made during the era.

“The thing that causes people to change is not simply the exposure, but its their interpretation,”said Lafayette, who is also the chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

With the established routes created by the trail, Lafayette said, visitors will find it easy to include key historical locations tied to the era to their travel itinerary and discover how inter-connected those events were.

“These landmarks represent the place where action that actually made a difference took place,” he said.

For more information on the US Civil Rights Trail go to 

Special coverage: 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.