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  • The clerics statue in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama
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    Start in King’s Footsteps in Birmingham, Alabama

  • Downtown Tuskegee, Alabama, a short drive from U.S. National Park Service historic sites
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    A Microcosm of the Civil Rights Struggle in Tuskegee, Alabama

  • At the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, experiencing the emotion of the bus boycott
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    Follow the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail

  • The Alamo Theater in Jackson, Mississippi
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    Jackson, Mississippi: The Heart of Civil Rights Activism

  • The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee
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    Civil Rights Museums and Music in Memphis, Tennessee

  • APEX Museum in Atlanta, Georgia
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    Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy Lives on in Atlanta, Georgia

Posing in front of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama
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Changing the Course of Freedom: A Civil Rights History Tour

  • Route distance:
    1619km
  • Suggested Time:
    6 days

A tribute to the struggle and honoring a legacy across the Southeast

Of the themes running through the American South, civil rights is one of the most dichotomous. Not only because the theme is one of division but because to follow its thread is to relive its lows and highs, and to comprehend how those lows invoked the attention and energy to power positive change. Through this itinerary that includes the birth home of Martin Luther King Jr. and the site of his assassination, you’ll meet the soldiers of the movement – children, colleagues, clergy and others – in memorials, museums and historic sites along the way.

01
The clerics statue in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama
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Start in King’s Footsteps in Birmingham, Alabama

Fly directly into Birmingham’s Shuttlesworth International Airport (named after civil rights activist Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth), or drive over from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (about two and a half hours). Your journey will deposit you in the heart of a vibrant, heritage-rich city that has the stamp of Martin Luther King, Jr. all over it. The late, great activist visited in April 1963, a year when the civil rights events in Birmingham made history. Make your first stop the Birmingham Civil Rights District, where you can see demonstrators' gathering points at Kelly Ingram Park, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which holds the door and bars of the cell from which King composed "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and footage of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Nearby, visit the Fourth Avenue North Historic District, the black business district during the King era, and the 16th Street Baptist Church, where lively Sunday services have changed little from the days when King was a visitor. On your way out of the city, make a stop in the town of Bessemer to visit one of the oldest – and last remaining – backyard “juke joints” in America, Gip's Place.

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211 km
2 hours by car
02
Downtown Tuskegee, Alabama, a short drive from U.S. National Park Service historic sites
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A Microcosm of the Civil Rights Struggle in Tuskegee, Alabama

Tuskegee offers a broad overview of the civil rights story through its numerous monuments and museums. Start at Tuskegee University, formerly the Tuskegee Institute, which was founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881 as a school to train Africa-American teachers. Visit on a weekend for guided tours of Washington’s home, The Oaks, or explore the George Washington Carver Museum and the campus itself, a designated historic district. Make your way to the university chapel, where 11 Negro spirituals are depicted in stained glass known as the “Singing Windows.” Also worth visiting is the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, which tells the story of pioneering black American pilots through its hangar museum, wayside exhibits and regular events, including fly-ins. Before leaving Tuskegee, fit in a stop at the Tuskegee Human & Civil Rights Multicultural Center, where exhibits draw parallels between the U.S. civil rights conflict of the mid-20th century and earlier conflicts between European explorers and Native American tribes – profound material to consider as you head west toward Selma.

64 km
1 hour by car
03
At the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, experiencing the emotion of the bus boycott
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Follow the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail

As you journey between Tuskegee and Jackson, you’ll pass through Montgomery and then Selma, the start and end points of the 87-kilometer Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, which commemorates those who marched for the right to vote in 1965. In Montgomery, one of the cornerstones of the civil rights movement, take a tour of the Capitol before exploring downtown sites like the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Dr. King lived, preached and planned the Montgomery bus boycott. Later, visit the Rosa Parks Library and Museum and the Freedom Rides Museum, which commemorates people of all races who protested against segregated public transportation. Proceed to Haynesville and the Lowndes Interpretive Center, and watch for wayside exhibits along the route. Once to Selma, head to the Selma Interpretive Center, which tells how armed forces attacked the first wave of unarmed marchers on Bloody Sunday. Worth examining before continuing on to Mississippi: the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the marches began, the National Voting Rights Museum, and the Slavery & Civil War Museum.

399 km
4 hours by car
04
The Alamo Theater in Jackson, Mississippi
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Jackson, Mississippi: The Heart of Civil Rights Activism

On your way to Mississippi’s capital city, stop in Meridian, a center of civil rights activism, and remember civil rights martyrs such as James Chaney, who died during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964. Then proceed to Jackson and the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center, housed inside the first public school for African Americans in Mississippi. Next, visit Tougaloo College and explore Farish Street, a historic center of black businesses including the renovated Alamo Theater. Try hot smoked sausage sandwiches when hunger calls. Jackson was also the home of famed civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers, whose namesake museum tells of his life and 1963 murder by a white supremacist. En route to your next stop, meet Sylvester Hoover in Greenwood, and he’ll take you to Bryant’s Grocery in the town of Money, a site associated with the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. Till’s death is often credited with awakening the world to the U.S. civil rights struggle. If you have the time, inquire into Hoover’s side trips to other Mississippi civil rights sites.

335 km
3 hours by car
05
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee
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Civil Rights Museums and Music in Memphis, Tennessee

Memphis was instrumental in the civil rights movement, which was intertwined with its legendary music scene. Start your visit on a serious note at Memphis’ National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, and take a glimpse inside the motel room and balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Across from the museum stands the boarding house where the shooter stood. Within this Legacy Building, exhibits detail the investigation, manhunt and trials associated with King’s murder. Memphis is filled with other important civil rights sites, from the Burkle Estate, a rumored stop on the Underground Railroad, to historic markers honoring activists such as Ida B. Wells, to Mason Temple, where Dr. King delivered his legendary final speech. Beale Street’s Withers Collection Museum & Gallery is also a must. End your visit at the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum or the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, where you’ll get a look inside the Memphis music scene and see its connections to the larger story of civil rights in the South. These stops may just inspire the soundtrack for the last leg of your trip to Atlanta.

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610 km
6 hours by car
06
APEX Museum in Atlanta, Georgia
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Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy Lives on in Atlanta, Georgia

It’s a long but worthwhile drive to culture-rich Atlanta, where historic homes and churches, festivals and the new Center for Civil and Human Rights cement Atlanta as a civil rights hub. But Atlanta is perhaps most famous as the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. Take a guided tour of King’s birth home on Auburn Avenue, then explore the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site’s self-guided elements: Ebenezer Baptist Church, where three generations of the King family preached; The King Center, where King and his wife, Coretta, are buried; and the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame, where shoeprints from Rosa Parks, Desmond Tutu and others are embedded. Surrounding the site, the Sweet Auburn district invites its own exploration. From March through November, you can walk with a docent from the Atlanta Preservation Center as your guide; or you can tour it on your own, stopping into the APEX Museum, where exhibits tell Sweet Auburn’s story, dating to the mid-1800s. When you’re ready to leave, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is just 13 kilometers from downtown.

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Bustling Beale Street at night
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Destination

Memphis

The Mark Twain Riverboat on the Mississippi River
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Destination

Hannibal