Living Legacies

Civil rights trails in Georgia help preserve memories from a tumultuous time.
Georgia Trend November 2022 Civil Rights Tourism Savitt p28
Inspirational Stories: Jill Savitt, president and CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta Photo: MattOdomPhotography.com

As the headlines of the civil rights movement pass further into history, a new phenomenon is born: civil rights tourism is getting increasing attention, and Georgia is rich in its resources. So rich, in fact, that two separate and distinct civil rights trails wind through the state – and those two don’t even come close to all the sites that could be included.

Why now? What’s driving the interest in the events of decades ago, the movement from the 1950s and 1960s that changed American life so dramatically? High-profile cases involving civil rights concerns – like the murders of George Floyd in Minnesota and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick – probably factor in. But Todd Groce, president and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society (GHS), says much of it has to do with living memory.

“It’s the same thing that happened after the World Wars,” says Groce. “The generations that were involved are passing away and they want to put their stamp on things. The legacy itself is being fought over. The participants are working to define things, and those definitions are not always in agreement with one another.”

By Groce’s reckoning, the race is on to preserve the reality of the civil rights movement before the last living participants pass away. In Georgia, two efforts are the U.S. Civil Rights Trail – which sounds like a federal program but is actually a consortium of the tourism departments of 15 Southern and border states and the District of Columbia – and GHS’s own Georgia Civil Rights Trail, which is defined by those ubiquitous metal markers standing sentinel along Georgia highways and on significant buildings. And while the civil rights movement was a national one, the fronts of the struggle were local, so you find individual sites and museums in places like Macon and Savannah.

Tourism is a whopping part of the state economy. Explore Georgia, the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s tourism marketing wing, reported that the state hosted 159.2 million domestic visitors and another 357,500 international ones in the year 2021. While they were here, those visitors spent $34.4 billion, and tourism’s total economic impact for the state was $64.5 billion last year.

Yet pinning down what share of tourism income can be attributed to civil rights tourism is difficult. According to Longwoods International, a major tourism market research firm, in 2021 11% of Georgia’s domestic overnight visitors and 7% of domestic day-trippers reported visiting civil rights or African-American heritage sites and experiences during their trips. Note that those results don’t differentiate between civil rights tourism specifically and African-American heritage in general. Perhaps the most useful way to look at such tourism from an economic standpoint is that it is one more offering to attract visitors who can choose from a wide variety of tourism niches as they visit Georgia.


Cradle of the Movement

The U.S. Civil Rights Trail has more than 100 locations across 15 states, and 11 of those sites are in Georgia. You’ll find sites associated with Georgia’s two winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and former President Jimmy Carter, represented on the list, as well as off-the-beaten-path destinations like Midway in Southeast Georgia. Eight of the state’s recognized sites are in Atlanta, and half of those are associated with King. Three of the sites on the trail’s list – King’s birthplace, Ebenezer Baptist Church and the King Center – are all part of the fourth site, Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park.

The park houses several buildings, scattered organically around the neighborhood where King grew up. Some are preserved structures, like the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, and others are purpose-built contemporary construction, such as The King Center. The buildings are within healthy walking distance for those who are physically fit. The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site visitor center at 450 Auburn Ave. is the logical starting place (and provides free parking). Inside are orientation materials and exhibits, but perhaps most important of all, this is where you can reserve your place for the interior tours of King’s birth home. Those guided tours of the home are free (like all of the facets of this National Park Service operation) but are timed and group size is limited.

The most solemn of part of the site is on the grounds of The King Center, which was established by King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, shortly after his assassination. Here you’ll find the Georgia marble tomb of Martin and Coretta in an elongated reflective pool with an eternal flame nearby.

Guests can also visit the historic Ebenezer Baptist at 407 Auburn Ave., across the street from the larger, modern sanctuary that now houses the congregation.

King’s influence is felt at another of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail sites, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. This massive interactive museum in downtown Atlanta links the U.S. civil rights struggle to those across the globe and houses an important collection of King’s papers.

“People who come to our museum tell us they are incredibly inspired because we tell the story of one of the most transformational movements of the modern era. The story we tell is people tapping their own power to influence the world around them,” says Jill Savitt, president and CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. “While the history can be seen as hard and painful, the resilience and action taken by ordinary people is inspirational.”

“It’s really important to understand civil rights history is the history of our democracy. Knowing how people addressed problems in the past, that’s really helpful,” she says.

The center stands on a grassy plaza also fronted by the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola. The building, by architect Phillip Freelon in partnership with HOK, is described by the center as representing two hands coming together to protect something precious, while its multi-hued exterior represents human diversity.

Visitors enter the building on the second of three levels. On the entry level, the exhibition “Rolls Down Like Water” tells the story of the civil rights movement, starting with depictions of the strictly segregated lives of Blacks and Whites in the Jim Crow South. Highlights include a video recap of the 1963 March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Guests climb a reproduction of the staircase at the Lorraine Motel, site of King’s assassination, to reach a video presentation of King’s funeral service.

The upper gallery exhibit, dubbed “Spark of Conviction,” traces how the American civil rights struggle inspired similar movements across the globe, from South Africa to South America. Photo galleries display champions of human rights, as well as a chilling wall with life-sized photographs of notorious human rights criminals like Hitler and Stalin.

The first floor includes portions of the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection in the “Voice to the Voiceless” exhibit, along with a large-scale art installation featuring King’s handwriting etched in metal.

Check the website for hours, which were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and tickets. Plan on spending 90 minutes to two hours for a thorough viewing and participation in the interactive exhibits.


Beyond Atlanta

The U.S. Civil Rights Trail includes two church-linked sites in Albany and one in Midway. There, in Liberty County, stands the Dorchester Academy Boys’ Dormitory. Now a National Historic Landmark, this was originally a school for recently freed slaves and their children in the 1870s. In the early 1960s, the school and its grounds served as a safe haven for the Southern Christian Leadership Council to plan campaigns and train participants in nonviolent techniques.

Though the U.S. Civil Rights Trail does showcase important sites, if you stick strictly to its itinerary, you’ll miss several significant Georgia locations. Take, for example, the Tubman African American Museum in Macon. At this facility, civil rights history is one component among many, including African-American history, art and music.

“Our local history exhibit, ‘Untold Stories,’ tells the story of the transition from segregation through the civil rights movement,” says Jeff Bruce, director of exhibitions and collections. Although the museum is named in honor of Harriet Tubman, the activist known for using the Underground Railroad to free slaves, he adds, there is no known connection between her and Macon.

Bruce won’t name a favorite exhibit but he does note which one takes visitors most by surprise. “The one that people are the most surprised by is ‘The Legacy of Soul,’” he says of the exhibit featuring prominent African-American musicians and those they influenced who have Macon ties. Music is a recurring feature of civil rights attractions – the U.S. Civil Rights Trail even features an online playlist that reflects the popularity of Black music among white audiences during the civil rights movement.

Savannah, too, has a homegrown civil rights museum, the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, named for an early hero of the movement.

“This museum is dedicated to the work of the Savannah NAACP. What’s been added is a second orientation gallery, ‘Sung Heroes of Savannah’s Civil Rights Movement,’ and they’re the stories of the presidents of the NAACP beginning with Ralph Mark Gilbert, who revitalized the chapter,” says Vaughnette Goode-Walker, executive director of the museum.

The museum has used its pandemic closure for revision and expansion of exhibits. Reopening is anticipated this fall. “We call it an exhibit enhancement because when I got here, I found the original [tour presentation] script and W.W. Law [another Savannah NAACP president and prominent local civil rights leader] had written every page. I was really excited to see some of the information in his hand,” she says.

The building itself is part of the museum’s artifacts. “During segregation, it was what I considered a Black business empire,” Goode-Walker says, citing its history first as a Black-owned bank, then a Black-owned insurance company that rented offices to the NAACP as well as Black lawyers, dentists and other professionals.


Marking History

But what about the other civil rights trail, the one formed by the Georgia Historical Society? The Georgia Civil Rights Trail currently numbers about 55 markers all over the state and more are continually being added, including four new ones in 2022.

GHS’s civil rights marker program came about to mark the 50th anniversary of the movement and to fill in some of the holes left in Georgia’s tapestry of history.

The state began putting up historical markers in the early 1950s, a project run by various state entities, but the effort and the upkeep left the program languishing by the late 1990s. GHS offered to step in and revive the marker program.

You’ve seen these sturdy metal posts bearing large, text-heavy metal placards along Georgia highways and on buildings. You can recognize the older ones, those erected by the state, by their greenish-brown-with-gold-lettering color scheme. The newer markers, erected under GHS’s watch, are more modern in design, featuring a black background with white lettering and the GHS seal.

Groce says there were already 2,000 markers in place when the historical society assumed responsibility for the program – more than in any state besides Texas. “And the vast majority of those were basically about four years of Georgia history and American history, and that was the Civil War. Most of them were about Confederate generals and Civil War battles. We realized there was more to Georgia history and in some cases, the interpretation from the 1950s needed to be updated.”

That doesn’t mean taking down markers – the state still owns the old ones – but it has occasionally meant placing an updated version nearby.

“One of the things you are dealing with here is public memory, and how people forget and remember things. Are we trying to force people to remember ugly things just because we think that they should?” says Stan Deaton, senior historian and Dr. Elaine B. Andrews Distinguished Historian at GHS.

People sometimes worry that the blood-soaked past will reflect poorly on an area’s present-day residents, Groce says.

“But it’s just the opposite. It makes them look courageous and shows that they’re being honest. And guess what tourists want? They want authenticity. They want the real stories. They want to experience what really happened. And when you tell it in an honest way, they want to look at these sites and then they will come to buy gas, and they buy lunch and they might spend the night – all the things that tourists will do,” Groce says.


Following the U.S. Civil Rights Trail

If you want to see all of the 11 Georgia sites on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, fill up your gas tank: It’ll take you nearly 600 miles just to get between the major cities on the trail. And that doesn’t include the site-to-site travel in Atlanta. The complete list follows. These sites took COVID-19 protections seriously and some are still dealing with issues like staffing shortages, so check ahead for status and hours.

Albany Civil Rights Institute, Albany, includes a museum, research center and the rehabilitated Old Mount Zion Baptist Church.

APEX Museum, Atlanta, a museum of African and African-American history and culture.

Dorchester Academy Boys’ Dormitory, Midway

Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta

Elbert P. Tuttle United States Court of Appeals Building, Atlanta, a working federal courthouse where the Fifth Court of Appeals did its work on major civil rights cases.

Martin Luther King Jr. Birth Home, Atlanta

Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, Atlanta

The Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta

The Carter Center, Atlanta, campaigns for peace, human rights and improved global health.

The King Center, Atlanta

Shiloh Baptist Church, Albany, played a prominent role in the Albany civil rights movement.

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