A Civil Rights Inspired Road Trip

When Chandler first broached the idea of a southern road trip this summer, I was pretty hesitant. There’s a lot on my list of things to see in the US and if I’m being honest, the south wasn’t high on it. New Orleans was a big pull for me, but what sealed the deal were the Civil Right’s stops that Chandler had planned along our route.

This post is far from a complete guide and only highlights the stops we made. Along the way, we encountered the US Civil Rights Trail (with sites across 14 states) and have definitely been inspired to return to the south in the near future.

We spent two amazing and enlightening days in Montgomery, Alabama. We visited the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. One of our biggest regrets on the road trip was not spending more time in Montgomery.

The city is embracing its history and taking ownership of its past actions. As a woman with mixed indigenous and white ancestry, I could never say if it’s done enough to rectify the past, but one thing we noticed right away were the murals, signs, and tributes posted throughout the city.

We spent our first afternoon at The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and I have to say, it is one of the best museums I’ve ever been to. It’s immersive and informative and leaves you with so much to reflect on.

Photographs aren’t allowed in the museum, which I think gives you a more intimate experience, but it left me scrambling to write notes in my phone throughout the entirety of our visit. Some of the information I knew, a lot was new to me, all of it was heartbreaking, and having it all laid out in one place was so powerful.

Some of it was uplifting: Despite the legal obstacles and dangerous risks of running, approximately 100,000 enslaved men, women, and children managed to escape to freedom before 1865. Other parts were downright appalling: The death penalty can also be called “lynching’s step-child.”

Below are some of the facts I documented:

Another section that really stuck with me was the Voter Registration Exam. By 1868 over 80% of Black men who were eligible to vote had registered. This, of course, threatened the politics of the South. So, throughout most of the 20th century, many states blocked Black people from voting through poll tests, literacy tests, and poll taxes that only applied to people whose ancestors could not vote before the end of the Civil War.

Examples of literacy test questions that I would be unable to answer today:
-How many jelly beans are in the jar in front of you?
-How may the county seat be changed under the constitution of your state?
-How many windows can be counted at the White House in Washington DC?
-If a person charged with treason denied their guilt, how many people must testify against them before they can be convicted?
-How many seeds are in a watermelon?
-What are the names of the people who occupy the following offices in your county? (1) Clerk of the Superior Court (2) Ordinary (3) Sheriff

And the gerrymandering and purged voter registration lists are still occurring today. An excellent book on this topic is One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy by Carol Anderson.

The next morning, we made our way to The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The admission to this memorial was included in the price of our ticket to the Legacy Museum. This memorial is “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.”

The site includes a memorial square with 800 six-foot monuments to symbolize thousands of racial terror lynching victims in the United States and the counties and states where this terrorism took place. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented nearly 6,500 lynchings of Black people by white mobs across the US between 1865-1950. There are thousands more that will likely never be discovered. Their research is documented in the report Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.

Public spectacle lynchings were pre-planned, carnival-like events. In many cases, reporters attended and witnessed these unlawful lynchings, recording the experience and the victim’s final pleas. This even happened in my home state of Minnesota. In 1920, three men – Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie – were lynched in St. Louis County.

From 1882-1968, nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress, none were ever enacted. Below is documentation about the “reasons” behind just a few of the lynchings:

The monument was certainly sobering, but it was also an incredible work of art that did an unbelievable job of helping people (myself included!) really understand the magnitude of generational trauma that has been experienced by the Black community.

We barely saw the tip of the iceberg in Montgomery, missing other sites like the Rosa Parks Museum, the Freedom Rides Museums, and the Civil Rights Memorial Center. But our next stop was Selma, Alabama and we planned to follow the National Historic Trail between them.

Along the drive, we stopped at the Lowndes Interpretive Center. There, we learned more about the march and what it meant for those who participated. We drove past “Tent City” established after the march to house Black families that were dislodged by white landowners (who owned 90% of the land in Lowndes County at the time).

Our time in Selma was short, but we spent it at the Selma Interpretive Center (the smallest of the museums we went to) and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Now a National Historic Landmark, this bridge was the site of Bloody Sunday, when on March 7, 1965 armed police attacked the peaceful civil rights protestors. The event was televised and led to significant support for the Selma Voting Rights Movement.

After Selma, we continued our drive to Birmingham. Our time there was spent on lighter fare and gave us new reasons to fall in love with the South.

The final Civil Rights stop on our road trip was to Jackson, Mississippi. We visited the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum (which also hosts the Museum of Mississippi History). The price of admission includes both museums, but we barely had time to finish the Civil Rights Museum – it rivals the Legacy Museum as one of the most informative museums we’ve ever been to and our second biggest road trip regret was not scheduling more time at the museum. You could easily spend half a day there.

The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum contained 8 galleries:
1. Mississippi Freedom Struggle (sets the context for the Civil Rights Movement and includes quotations from those who risked their lives in an attempt to gain freedom)
2. Mississippi in Black and White (covers the years between 1865-1941, from the end of the Civil War through Reconstruction. Black Mississippians emerged from slavery as free citizens and established strong communities—despite oppression by white Mississippians)
3. This Little Light of Mine (the heart of the museum, Civil Rights activists are honored with words and images, and the music of the movement emanates throughout)
4. A Closed Society (from 1941 to 1960, this gallery shows how the experiences of black Mississippians who served in World War II fueled the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the state reaction to the Brown v. Board of Education decision and Emmett Till’s murder)

5. A Tremor in the Iceberg (personal stories and artifacts of people who participated in the Freedom Rides in 1961, including the brutal conditions and retaliation that activists faced)
6. I Question America (covering the years of 1963 and 1964, a look at how local movements grew into coordinated state campaigns that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965)
7. Black Empowerment (from 1965 to the mid-1970s, this gallery explores the successes and tragedies faced by the Black community after their victory with the Voting Rights Act)
8. Where Do We Go From Here? (a final moment of reflection)

We raced up to a special exhibit titled: The Negro Motorist Greenbook. Started in 1936 by Harlem postman Victor Green, the book was an annual guide that helped African Americans travel the country safely. The exhibit included business signs, postcards, images, and firsthand accounts. It also highlighted the success of many African American-owned businesses that made these journeys possible. If you’re an elementary teacher, like me, you might love Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Gwen Strauss!

We know we’ve just barely scratched the surface in our explorations of the South. Some important reminders were given to us along our journey about the North’s complicity in slavery and the little that’s been done to address it. I can honestly say I’ve been given a new perspective after our time in the South. I’m looking forward to going back soon.

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