The days of the civil rights movement seem distant now. But the memories, the sights, and the spirit of that remarkable era endure as I discovered when I traced a five-day, 500-mile loop through Georgia and Alabama.
I knew the route well. During the early 1960s I was a field secretary in the South with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). If you, like me, decide to follow this road and walk in the footsteps of the courageous pioneers who passed this way and lived in these places, don't stop with the official sights. Make an effort to talk to local people. Let their memories and their voices pace your journey.
Day One: Atlanta
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s hometown is the perfect place to start. Atlanta is easy to get to, with plenty of hotels and motels to fit any budget.
Urban, urbane Atlanta may be the least "Southern" of southern cities, but much civil rights history was written on its streets. Although it boasted of being "the city too busy to hate," it was still segregated in the early 1960s.
Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was based in Atlanta (and still is, at 591-A Edgewood Avenue). In his spare time, King usually rested, wrote, and preached at his father's church, Ebenezer Baptist, a recently restored gem at 407 Auburn Avenue. Sadly, Ebenezer is a rare bright spot along the now depressed thoroughfare dubbed "the richest Negro street in the world" byForbesmagazine in 1956 and still called Sweet Auburn by many locals. Elsewhere, the street's ramshackle housing and empty storefronts stand as evidence that not all of Dr. King's dreams have been realized.
A good place to stop next on your visit to this National Historic Site and Preservation District is King's birthplace, a modest two-story Queen Anne-style frame home (501 Auburn). Down the road, the National Park Service manages a visitors center (450 Auburn) with thematic alcoves that portray aspects of the civil rights movement. Across the street, the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change (449 Auburn) is part of the Preservation District. Inside, the Center exhibits Dr. King's Nobel Peace Prize and other memorabilia. And you can sit by the reflecting pool and contemplate the life of King, whose crypt is at the pool's center.
Day Two: Atlanta to Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama
(Interstate 20 or U.S. 78 West; approximately 150 miles)
As you drive from Atlanta toward Birmingham, you are roughly following the course of the Freedom Rides of 1961. These rides, launched by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), went from town to town by bus, testing local compliance with federal orders to desegregate interstate bus terminals. The first group (both black and white riders) traveled for 10 days relatively incident free, but after leaving Atlanta they didn't get far. At the Greyhound terminal in Anniston, about an hour from Atlanta, their bus was surrounded by a white mob carrying pipes, bats, knives, and bricks. They slashed the tires and pursued the escaping bus, which limped to a stop along the road out of town. Then came the smashing of windows and a firebomb through the broken back window. The fuel tank caught fire and the mob scattered.
"That's how we got out," recalled Henry "Hank" Thomas, a Freedom Rider I'd looked up in Atlanta.
There is no marker where this took place, just a scattering of fast food shops. In 2001, when Thomas and other Freedom Riders retraced their route on the 40th anniversary, the mayor of Anniston and a cheering crowd greeted them. "I was overcome with emotion," says Thomas. "I was thinking, Look, they're cheering us 40 years ago they wanted to kill us."
There's a replica of that burned-out bus at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (520 Sixteenth Street North). It's a chilling sight. The Institute anchors a six-block Civil Rights District that includes the red brick Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (1530 Sixth Avenue North), where on September 15, 1963, four young girls were killed in a bomb blast set off by Ku Klux Klansmen. Civil rights demonstrators used to meet at Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from the Institute. Now, amidst the park's magnolia trees, you'll find scattered bronze statues: police dogs on the attack...children in jail...and three praying ministers.