Civil Rights Movement Trail: a road trip through the Southern history

It was with a variety of emotions that we tracked the Civil Rights Movement on our Civil Rights Trail road trip. While it was heartbreaking, we believe that expanding our knowledge about the past would teach us valuable insights about ourselves and others. Frustration, sadness, and shame overtook us when we learned how prejudice and hate destroyed and divided so many lives. Other times, we appreciated those who had the courage to change American history. Moreover, it encouraged us to stand up for justice and equality.

On the Civil Rights Trail road trip we drove approximately 400 miles between Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham, in Alabama, and Memphis, in Tennessee. There wasn’t one place we stopped that we didn’t wish we had more time. Each museum, memorial, or church we visited revealed the heartbreaking African American fate, brutality, and struggles. At the same time, it was a walk along a path of resilience, determination, and victory.

Learning from the past

As we ventured on the Civil Rights Trail road trip to where the Civil Rights Movement started, history came alive. It brought to light some of the darkest moments of our history and helped us to better understand racial tensions in today’s society.

Although the Civil War had officially abolished slavery in 1863, it didn’t end discrimination against black men and women. Through the 1950s, they continued to face devastating effects of racism and violence, predominantly in the South. Laws condemned black citizens to inferior treatment. Schools, hotels, restaurants, and buses were segregated.

Our daughter seemed shocked when she realized that only a little more than 50 years ago African American kids couldn’t play together, sit at the same lunch table as the rest of their classmates, or use the same water fountain or bathroom.

In 1954 the black community raised a collective voice of “No More!” to injustice and racial inequality. Protests, boycotts, court cases, and popular culture took place from Kansas to Louisiana, Tennessee and Washington D.C. The Civil Rights Movement was born. Lasting for over a decade, it was marked by courageous people who fought and died calling for better lives.

Our itinerary, their journey

Would you like to know more about the Civil Rights Movement Trail? Join us on this deep South journey, and we will let you know what to see in each city, where to stay, distances driven each day, and more.

Civil Rights Trail Road Trip stop #1: Selma, Alabama

Time recommended: half-day

Selma was Ground Zero in the Fight for Voting Rights in the South. As such, it was the first stop of our road trip. This humble town caught the attention of the entire nation when it became the hub of a decisive shift in the American conscience.

What you cannot miss in Selma:

Edmund Pettus Bridge

While walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we tried to picture the 600 nonviolent civil rights demonstrators who attempted to march to the state capital of Montgomery in an effort to gain voting rights in the South. Local authorities, using tear gas, nightsticks, and other weapons, brutally assaulted protesters crossing the bridge. That day became known as Bloody Sunday.

Civil Rights Trail Road Trip

Edmund Pettus Bridge

Two days after Bloody Sunday, Martin Luther King led more than 2,000 marchers to the site of Sunday’s attack, then stopped and asked them to kneel and pray. Because they didn’t have court protection, they marched back to Selma.

Time spent on site: about 30 minutes.

Selma Imperative Center

Note: We didn’t visit this Center due to the Partial Federal Shutdown, but according to my research it is an absolutely necessary stop as a part of the Trail. The Center holds items that were part of the civil rights movement. They also have a 25-minute film that provides a good recap of the events at the bridge.

Civil War and Slavery Museum

There are no words that can help me express how I felt when we had the privilege to meet the iconic civil rights activist, Annie Pearl Avery. She was one of the protesters at the Edmund Pettus Bridge during Bloody Sunday in 1965. Mrs. Avery not only welcomed us at the Civil War and Slavery Museum but also told us about her own experiences during that dark time.

Civil Rights Trail Road Trip

The small museum has a detailed timeline of millions of African people who were kidnapped, enslaved, and shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas. It also explains the hundreds of years of slavery, and the current political context many African American communities are facing right now.

Time spent on site: about 90 minutes.

Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail

Two weeks after Bloody Sunday, the world watched Martin Luther King, Jr. lead about 3,200 nonviolent protesters on a three-day walk to Montgomery. This time they had court protection. By the time they reached the capital, there were about 25,000 marchers. Five months after the march, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

While we drove the 54-mile stretch of US Route 80 between Selma and Montgomery, we could only imagine the strength and determination of those who desperately sought changes in America.

Note: There are additional interpretive sites along the highway to commemorate the march.  These sites were not available at the time due to the government shutdown.

Civil Rights Trail Road Trip stop #2: Montgomery, Alabama

Selma to Montgomery (approximately 50 miles)

Where to stay: Hampton Inn (in the heart of downtown within minutes’ walk to The Alley)

Time recommended: two days

Montgomery is the birthplace of civil rights. At just about every street corner we walked in Montgomery, there was history. From Rosa Parks’ bus stop arrest site to the place where Martin Luther King lived with his family. From slave traders’ offices to the segregated bus station, the city is itself a big museum. Most of the city’s historic attractions are within walking distance from each other.

Here are the places we highly recommend visiting:

Court Square Fountain

For many reasons, this historic location was the best spot to start our tour in Montgomery. Currently adorned by a beautiful fountain, it was once an active slave trade site. On one side of the fountain, you will find the bus stop where the activist Rosa Parks boarded a bus that should have taken her home. Her refusal to give up her seat to a white man took her, instead, to the recognition of a fighter against racism.

Montgomery, Alabama

On the other side is the Winter Building from where the telegram was sent giving the order to fire the first shots of the Civil War. Also, the three-day march from Selma to Montgomery went right past the square and up to the Alabama State Capitol building at the top of the hill.

Alabama State Capitol

Time spent on site: about 30 minutes.

Rosa Parks arrest site and Rosa Parks Museum

We started the tour in front of the museum, checking out the historic site where Rosa Parks was removed from the bus, arrested, and later convicted and fined. A plaque identifies the spot. Her resistance set off a year-long bus boycott led by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rosa Parks arrest site

Inside, the exhibits pulled us into history. An introductory video shows interviews of people who lived through that period, all with different experiences to share. A holographic display recreated Ms. Parks’ interaction with the bus driver and police. It appeared as we were standing on the street looking into the bus. The exhibits were impressive. Our daughter loved it, and so did we.

Time spent on site: about two hours.

For more information, including hours of operation and admission fees, click here.

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

We’ve been to many museums, and I don’t remember being greeted with hugs at any of them before now. Wanda Battle, our guide at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was an absolute joy. She not only explained the significance of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to the Civil Rights Movement, but also made sure to spread Dr. King’s message: love, equality, and peace.

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

At this red brick church, Martin Luther King had his first and only experience as a pastor. In addition to his pastoral duties, he constantly encouraged his congregation to stand up for justice without violence.

When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery city bus, King offered a room in the basement for the organizers of the bus boycott to meet. Little did he know his leadership of the Civil Rights Movement was about to be born.

Inside the church, we visited his office from where he wrote many of his speeches and helped to organize his first major protest: the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For that, African-Americans refused to ride city buses to protest segregated seating. To get to work, protesters organized carpools, and black taxi drivers charged only 10 cents—the same price as bus fare. It marked the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

Time spent on site: about two hours.

For more information, including hours of operation and admission fees, click here.

Dexter Parsonage Museum

The Dexter Parsonage Museum is within walking distance from the church. The house served as home to the pastors of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, including Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dexter Parsonage Museum

The street still has several original houses. We started the tour at the Interpretive Center watching a video and looking at photos related to Kings’ legacy. We then walked over to the Parsonage Museum next door. It was an inspiring piece of history! On the front porch is the mark of the dynamite explosion that endangered King’s family’s lives.

Inside the house, most of the King family’s original furniture and paraphernalia still remain including the couple’s bedroom set. The phone in the hall where the threatening calls came in and the dining room where meetings took place are still there. At each step taken, we felt connected to history.

However, it was in the modest kitchen that I got goosebumps. While there, we listened to Dr. King’s speech where he described a sleepless night that led him to the kitchen table here in front of my eyes. His words revealed questions and anxiety due to all threats on his and his family’s lives. Yet, he decided to follow an inner voice which told him to not give up. We were all speechless.

Time spent on site: about two hours.

For more information, including hours of operation and admission fees, click here.

Civil Rights Memorial Center

The Civil Rights Memorial Center is small and quiet, yet overwhelming. It features the lives and tragic murders of forty people who died during the battle for equal human rights. They were either activists or innocent victims of the Ku Klux Klan.

Each victim had his or her picture on the wall with a short, powerful description about their personal lives. It detailed their age, place in the movement, and how they were killed. Some of the stories did not make easy reading. Learning that some of them were kids, who had the same age and desires as our daughter, made them even more human, and their deaths more heartbreaking.

Civil Rights Trail Road Trip

We finished adding our names on the Wall of Tolerance committing ourselves to stand for social justice. In our hearts is the hope for better days when nobody will experience discrimination due to skin color, race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

Although we were disappointed that the memorial fountain was not available at the time due to renovation, an explanatory video gave us valuable information. It consists of a circle-shaped granite table with water washing over the carved names of all those honored at the museum.

Time spent on site: about 90 minutes.

For more information click here.

Freedom Rides Museum

The Freedom Rides Museum, located in the original Greyhound Bus station, displays a map of the old floor plan, showing separate entrances, waiting rooms, ticket windows, restaurants, and lunch counters for people of color. This was what the Freedom Riders wanted to change, and they did. The “Colored Entrance,” now blocked off, can still be seen.

Freedom Rides Museum

The museum is small but made the experience thought-provoking. It tells the story of black and white civil rights activists, including college students, who decided to peacefully ride the buses together from Washington DC to New Orleans to protest the racial segregation in public transportation. Knowing the risks, some of them wrote farewell letters to their loved ones.

Civil Rights Trail Road Trip

During the rides, the Freedom Riders tried to use “whites-only” restrooms and lunch counters at bus stations. They suffered violent attacks by white mobs, including one at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery. In different Southern towns, there were more arrests of protesters for breaking segregation laws.  The movement drew international attention to the Freedom Riders’ voices.

Time spent on site: about 90 minutes.

For more information, including hours of operation and admission fees, click here.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is one of the most powerful memorials I have ever seen. Commemorating not only the terrible history of lynching and racial terror, it also reveals the ongoing battle of the Black Lives Matter movement of today.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

The main exhibit consists of a sheltered gallery filled with steel columns. At first, the columns are at eye level. As we walked down on the ramp, they appeared as suspended boxes hanging above our heads. Looking up, we realized each one of them symbolized a coffin hanging from the ceiling. The 800 “coffins” had names of lynching victims, dates, and location. We were speechless.

That is not all. The Memorial Square (in the center of the building) is a quiet, green space that represents the public squares where Black people were tortured and killed while thousands watched and cheered. A large glass box holds a collection of soil from over two dozen racial execution sites. Outside, rows of “coffins” lay on the ground in the grassy area with more names, dates, states, and counties.  

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Plan to spend at least two hours to see everything.

For more information, including hours of operation and admission fees, click here.

Civil Rights Trail Road Trip stop #3: Birmingham, Alabama

Montgomery to Birmingham (approximately 90 miles)

Time recommended: one day

Back in the early 1960s, Birmingham was a KKK stronghold, and Martin Luther King described it as America’s worst city for racism. The city had an important role in the civil rights movement.

We arrived in Birmingham late in the morning. Our plan was to visit a few sites and drive to Memphis, where we would be staying for a couple of days.

Here are our picks for must-visit Civil Rights landmarks in the city:

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church

Sunday Service was about to start, and when we asked if we could come in to see the church, smiles and greetings were followed by an invitation to join the service. We felt welcome. Sitting in the last row, we looked around. I couldn’t stop thinking about the chaos that it would have been in this temple on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church

That day, a bomb placed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church by white supremacists exploded, killing four young girls. Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson, dressed in their best clothes, ready for the Sunday service. The brutal event shocked the nation and inflamed the Civil Rights Movement.

Time spent on site: about 30 minutes.

Kelly Ingram Park

Across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is Kelly Ingram Park. It features gripping sculptures that depict police dogs and high-powered water hoses that attacked more than 1,000 students who gathered at the park to protest racial discrimination. The police put more than 600 children in jail.

Civil Rights Trail Road Trip

Kelly Ingram Park

A stroll through the Freedom Walk is a must-do. Signs explain each sculpture, but a free cell-phone audio tour is also available to the public.

Time spent on site: about 45 minutes.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Note: On the day we visited the city, the museum was not open. If you find yourself exploring the Civil Rights Trail, know that it is one of the most recommended attractions in Birmingham. Exhibits show significant events in Birmingham’s history, including the tragedy at the 16th Street Baptist Church during a bombing orchestrated by the Ku Klux Klan.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in downtown Birmingham, across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park.

Civil Rights Trail Road Trip stop #4: Memphis, Tennessee

Birmingham to Memphis (approximately 240 miles)

Time recommended: one day

Where to stay: Peabody Memphis (in the heart of Memphis)

National Civil Rights Museum: Lorraine Motel

The National Civil Rights Museum was the only Civil Rights site we visited in Memphis, but it was plenty. The museum is in the renovated Lorraine Motel, the location of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. The motel façade maintains the 1960s appearance, but inside, instead of hotel rooms, there is an array of galleries with extensive, visually powerful, educational, and emotional exhibits. It tells stories of Civil Rights activists, and the continuing struggle for equality in America today.

Civil Rights Trail Road Trip

National Civil Rights Museum: Lorraine Motel

On April 4, 1968, King visited the city to support the protest against conditions for black sanitation workers. Lorraine Motel was one of the few lodging places in Memphis that welcomed African Americans. Martin Luther King was staying in Room 306.

Earlier that day, King gave his memorable “Mountaintop” speech, in which he spoke of his own mortality, telling the crowd, “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

At the end of the day, King was back at the Motel. Around 6 pm, he emerged from his second-floor room and stood on the balcony. A bullet flew from across the street and shot dead Martin Luther King, Jr..

Pictures, replicas, sounds, and atmosphere make this museum an absolutely fascinating place to visit.The highlighted moment happened at the end of the self-guided tour when we stood in Room 307 and looked through the glass inside of Room 306.

National Civil Rights Museum: Lorraine Motel

The museum annex

Across the street is the museum annex with the boarding house where James Earl Ray was staying and from where he supposedly shot Dr. King. In the same building, there are interesting facts and less-known details about Martin Luther King’s assassination, including questions whether or not James Earl Ray was the assassin.

National Civil Rights Museum: Lorraine Motel

Plan at least four hours to see everything.

How to get there

Note: We started the Civil Rights Trail Road Trip in Selma, then drove to Montgomery, Birmingham, and Memphis. If driving to Selma is not doable for your family, check out the closest airports:

Montgomery, AL- Montgomery Regional Airport– 47 miles

Birmingham, AL – Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport – 90 miles

Columbus, GA – Columbus Metropolitan Airport –135 miles

Mobile, AL – Mobile Regional Airport– 157 miles

Need car rental to explore the Civil Rights Trail toad trip? Check out CarRentals.

How to prepare for the Civil Rights Trail Road Trip

Depending on the age of your kids, here are some books and movies that will engage your young ones on the importance of the Civil Rights Movement.

Movies to watch:

  • Selma
  • Freedom Riders
  • Hidden Figures
  • The Green Book

Easy books to read:


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One Comment

  1. This was an amazing account of the Civil Rights Movement! I am glad to know of all the places where people can educate themselves and open their eyes, minds, and hearts.

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