Rick Hampson, USA TODAY
The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was the site of a 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four schoolgirls.
by Molly Vorwerck, USA TODAY
As the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington approaches, those interested in civil rights history need look no further than the present. A growing number of museums and monuments across the nation, many integral to the civil rights movement, allow people to learn about some of the most volatile and pivotal events in American history.
Black cultural tourism is rapidly becoming a common practice for both Baby Boomers, whose own activism led to the march, and younger generations alike.
“One of the ironies of the late 20th century and the first part of the 21st century with regards to African-American tourism is that many of these sites of denigration and violence have become sites for tourism,” said James Early, a cultural historian for the Smithsonian Institution.
Touring of sites important to black history and black cultural experiences did not become common until 25 or 30 years ago, he said. Before then, the nation was unready to face its troubled past — as were many African Americans.
“It takes time for people to psychologically adjust even when one has more access to education, more income and more savings,” Early said. “The memories are still raw and frightening, and people are not so readily willing to step back into them.”
As the culmination of decades of conflict, the March on Washington is often remembered as the turning point in the civil rights movement. In order to connect with this moment, travelers can visit a number of locations in and around Washington, D.C.
Although built to honor their presidential namesakes, the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial mark the start and finish of the march, with the latter serving as a symbolically profound backdrop to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
The Willard Hotel in Washington, where King worked on his keynote address, is similarly fundamental to the march. In 1963, the Willard was one of the few hotels open to black people, so King and his team of advisers used its lobby as their meeting place, said Barbara Bahny, the hotel’s spokeswoman.
King, Andrew Young and other movement leaders gathered at the Willard the night before the speech, according to an Associated Press article published Aug. 29, 1963. They traded suggestions for the speech, with King writing it, his secretary typing and retyping it and King scribbling changes in the margins. “He stayed up all night,” Young said. “You’d look in the margin and see as many as four or five different words in one place, where he’d crossed it out, selected another one,” the article said.
Not far from Washington, the Robert Russa Moton House in Capahosic, Va., is also a spot ingrained in the march’s historical memory. According to Clarence C.J. Sailor, director of programs for the estate, King worked on his speech under an oak tree on the property facing the York River.
In addition to providing a quiet spot for King to write, the house was often used as a retreat for mid-century black intellectuals invited to the Holly Knoll estate by Moton, who was the second president of the historically black Tuskegee Institute founded by Booker T. Washington.
“The estate is called the cradle of the civil rights movement,” Sailor said. “It was a haven for leaders to strategize and plan, to find solutions to the problems of the day that African Americans faced.”
However, civil rights tourism extends far beyond the boundaries of march history; in fact, much takes places in the South, where the struggle for racial equality reached its peak in the early 1960s.
At the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta, King’s legacy is celebrated in what his widow, Coretta Scott King, envisioned as “no dead monument, but a living memorial.” In addition to housing a wide array of documents and memorabilia, the center also doubles as a research institute dedicated to the pursuit of human rights. Located on the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, the center serves as the hub of a number of important places in King’s life.
“In the space of three blocks, you have his birth home, the church where he and his father preached (Ebenezer Baptist Church), the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) National Headquarters and his tomb,” said Steve Kline, spokesman for the center. “We’re getting well over a million visitors per year, and it’s only going to pick up in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the march.”
In Alabama, various sites of non-violent protest — including the Birmingham Campaign — abound with memories of this struggle. The 16th Street Baptist Church, now a national historic landmark, was an organizational center of the movement, as well as the location of the tragic 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four innocent schoolgirls.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, built in 2011, represents the first monument on the National Mall devoted to an African-American man, as well as the first built to commemorate neither a war nor a president. Despite an array of controversies — the choice of a Chinese sculptor, the difficulty of funding the massive $120 million construction and the paraphrasing of a King quote on the stone, to name a few — the memorial has became a site synonymous with King’s legacy, as well as the history of the civil rights movement.
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) being built on the Mall was very much designed with the march — and its lasting influence — in mind. The museum, slated to open in 2015, will host exhibits pertaining to all realms of black history. Phil Freelon, the museum’s architect, said that the layout of the building itself reflects King’s vision of progress.
“There’s a photograph that was taken on the Mall during the march where people are gathered, and there’s a man standing with his hands raised in celebration,” Freelon said. “We used that image to help describe how the building was designed as being celebratory, looking upward.”
Freelon has dedicated much of his life to designing buildings devoted to the celebration of his African-American heritage. In addition to the NMAAHC, Freelon and his firm have built a number of black cultural sites, including the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Emancipation Park Project in Houston. According to Freelon, the rise in black cultural tourism reflects both a desire to celebrate civil rights heroes as well as the increased accessibility of travel.
“I think that there’s a lot of interest in cultural tourism,” Freelon said. “The specific sites and stories with African Americans have been growing over the years, and we’ve seen an uptick in visits to museums and historical sites.”
For younger travelers, a common means of cultural tourism is through mobile applications that provide information about these landmarks. Projects such as the Alabama Civil Rights Trail Smartphone application and Mapp, inspired by Shukree Hassan Tilghman’s documentary film More than a Month, allow individuals to forge their own journeys through the civil rights movement, as well as provide directions to specific sites.
With the advent of such technologies, access to black history is no longer confined to textbooks.
“Place and objects of memory are very important because they evoke sensations and perceptions and a sense of feeling and environment that one simply cannot gather by reading on a page,” Early said. “That’s why people come to these sites — to commemorate.”
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