It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In the fight for racial equality in America, there were many places around the country that served as significant meeting places for the movement, backdrops for stirring speeches and sermons, and battlegrounds for non-violent protest — many of which now memorialize and recount the struggle. These are quintessential spots that every Amercian should try to visit at least once in their lifetime.
Listed below are 15 historic sites in Washington D.C. and across the South, representing a few of the many important markers the Civil Rights Movement met along the way to justice.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Opened in 1992, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is located in the City’s Civil Rights District. This cultural and educational research center functions as a “living institution” with an aim to promote understanding and appreciation for the significance of civil rights developments in Birmingham “with an increasing emphasis on the international struggle for universal human rights.”
Civil Rights Memorial
Created by Maya Lin, best known for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., this poignant memorial commemorates the lives of 41 individuals who died in the struggle to end segregation. In an open plaza in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, the memorial is outside the former offices of the Southern Poverty Law Center, now a space for exhibitions and events related to the Civil Rights Movement. Within a few blocks of the memorial are the Alabama State Capitol, the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, and the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where Dr. King was pastor during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and 1956.
Freedom Rides Museum
Also in downtown Montgomery, the Freedom Rides Museum is set in the Greyhound bus station and commemorates the young integrated activists who in 1961 traveled together on regularly scheduled buses from Washington D.C. to New Orleans in open defiance of segregation laws.
International Civil Rights Center & Museum
Located in Greensboro, North Carolina, within the former Woolworth’s, which was the site of the 1960 anti-segregation sit-ins that are considered a major catalyst of the Civil Rights Movement, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum is an archival center, collecting museum, and teaching facility devoted to the international struggle for civil and human rights.
This iconic national monument honors the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who was president during the Civil War and who was a pivotal figure in abolishing slavery. The awe-inspiring memorial has been the site of numerous civil rights demonstrations, including the 1963 March on Washington when MLK gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
This high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, has been recognized as a National Historic Site for the role it played in the desegregation of public schools in America. It was here in 1957 that nine African American students famously fought to attend the formerly white-only school, upholding the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. Guided “streetscape” tours at and around the school are offered daily (except for December 31 and January 1).
Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change
The King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, is a nonprofit cultural institution focused on keeping the memory and the message of MLK alive. On the grounds of the center are Dr. and Mrs. King’s crypt, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site (King’s birth home), the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church (where King was co-pastor with his father for a year), and exhibition and event spaces dedicated to King’s life and the stories of other prominent nonviolent activists.
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is located in Washington D.C.’s West Potomac Park, southwest of the National Mall. The 30-foot-tall granite statue was created by sculptor Lie Yixin, inspired by the line “out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope” from King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Located within a four-acre site near the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, it marks a visual “line of leadership” from the Lincoln Memorial where King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Part of the Smithsonian Institution, this museum opened to the public in 2016. Located on the National Mall in Washington D.C., it is the only national museum “devoted exclusively to the documentation of African-American life, history, and culture.” The museum’s collection also features more than 36,000 artifacts, many of which are related to the Civil Rights Movement.
National Center for Civil and Human Rights
The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta encourages guests to “explore the fundamental rights of all human beings from a safe place” through its award-winning exhibitions and displays and to join in the “ongoing dialogue about human rights in your community.”
National Civil Rights Museum
Set in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, at the Lorraine Hotel, the site of MLK’s 1968 assassination, the museum documents King’s death while highlighting his achievements as well as those of the Civil Rights Movement with poignant and stirring exhibits.
National Voting Rights Museum
The National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama (at the foot of Edmund Pettus Bridge), is the “cornerstone of the contemporary struggle for voting rights and human dignity.” Opened in 1993, the museum pays tribute to the history and legacy of the activists who participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, as well as the Women’s Suffrage movement.
Rosa Parks Library & Museum
The Rosa Parks Library & Museum in Montgomery tells the story of Rosa Parks and those involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The museum includes a permanent exhibit, a “time machine” and children’s wing, temporary exhibit space, archives, classrooms, and an auditorium and conference room. The museum is built on the site of the old Empire Theatre, where Mrs. Parks made history by refusing to sit at the back of the bus.
Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail
This 54-mile stretch of Alabama State Highway 80 honors the march of white and black nonviolent supporters, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The route includes the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, site of the horrific Bloody Sunday events of 1965. National Park interpretive centers in Lowndes and Selma welcome visitors Monday to Saturday.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
This 106-year-old church in Birmingham’s Civil Rights District was the first black church to organize in the city and served as headquarters for civil rights activists during the 50s and 60s. On September 15, 1963, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church, killing 4 young girls and injuring more than 20 others. The terrible act only galvanized the movement and made clear the urgency to pass legislation against discrimination. After nine months of repair work funded by donations, the church reopened in June of 1964.
Today, the church is on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage and the National Register of Historic Places. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark and is in the running to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In addition to attending regular worship services, guests can take an hour-long tour of the church and learn about its pivotal role in the Civil Rights Moment. Tours are conducted Tuesday to Friday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and on Saturday by appointment only.
Have you been to any of the above places or other important civil rights destinations? Share your tips on making the most of a visit to these historic sites.