History Happened Here: 10 Civil Rights Landmarks That Aren't Museums
For those who haven’t had to struggle for their rights to vote, go to school, eat in restaurants, or marry, it can be easy to think of civil rights as a subject belonging to museums and history books. But the long and still unfinished fight for equality for African Americans, women, Latinos, GLBT folks, and other U.S. citizens has been waged where people live, work, and gather—in churches, schools, homes, and places of business. For travelers who’d like to pay their respects, we’ve put together a roundup of civil rights landmarks that aren’t museums. Because while it’s important to mark certain events with memorials and monuments, it’s also worth remembering that history can be made by ordinary people in everyday spaces.
One of the most important and effective movements to end segregation in the South was launched here, a site once used for slave auctions. In 1955, seamstress and NAACP activist Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus near the square’s historic fountain (pictured). A few stops later, she was asked to get off the bus for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. Her act of defiance set in motion the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which eventually resulted in the desegregation of the Alabama capital’s public transit system. Historical markers at Court Square draw attention to the slave market and the bus stop; the nearby Rosa Parks Museum, situated at the corner where she took her figurative stand by maintaining her literal seat, tells the story of her life and causes. The actual bus where it all went down can be found at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Like his father before him, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the pastor of this world-renowned church, where services are still held to this day. Beyond the place’s significance in the life of King (he not only preached from the pulpit but was baptized here as well), the church holds the distinction of being the birthplace of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. That pivotal organization, dedicated to fighting racial inequality with nonviolent resistance, was founded following a 1957 summit convened by King, attended by dozens of black leaders, and held right here at Ebenezer Baptist. Today the church is part of a complex known as the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, which also includes King’s boyhood home.
It may look like a simple clapboard farmhouse, but women’s rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton called her residence at 32 Washington Street in Seneca Falls, New York (pictured), the “Center of the Rebellion.” Deeded the property by her father in his will (an unusual—and illegal—move in an era when women weren’t allowed to own real estate), Cady Stanton lived here with her husband and seven children for 14 years starting in 1847. During that time, she wrote the Declaration of Sentiments arguing for women’s equality and helped organize the Seneca Falls Convention, recognized as the start of the U.S. women’s suffrage movement. The convention was held at the nearby Wesleyan Chapel. Both properties are part of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park.
About an hour’s drive northwest will bring you to Rochester, where you can tour the home of Cady Stanton’s friend and fellow activist Susan B. Anthony. The country’s most famous early suffragist lived at 17 Madison Street for most of her life; she was once arrested in the front parlor after trying to vote in 1872. For more context, a museum in an adjoining house will give you the lowdown on Anthony’s life and times.
The Supreme Court struck down racial segregation in schools in its landmark 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. The school at the center of that case, Monroe Elementary in Topeka, Kansas, is now a National Historic Site. But a more contentious test of the ruling took place in Arkansas’ capital city in 1957, when nine African American students integrated Little Rock’s Central High amid the virulent protests of white residents. Denied entrance to the school on their first attempt, the Little Rock Nine were eventually escorted inside by the national guard at the order of President Dwight Eisenhower. Unlike Monroe Elementary in Topeka, Central High (1500 S. Park St.) is still open for classes. A visitor center across the street has photo and video exhibits to walk you through the turbulent events of 1957.
There aren’t a lot of historical landmarks with liquor licenses. But when members of a marginalized group finally say enough is enough, a bar is as good a place as any to serve as the launchpad for a society-altering equality movement. That’s what happened—though it was by no means planned out—on June 28, 1969, when police raided this gay bar at 53 Christopher Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village for the second time in a week. Fed up with being criminalized, the patrons started a riot that lasted for days. The police responded with violence, and the GLBT rights movement was born (the uprising and all that followed are commemorated on the last Sunday of June with the city’s annual Pride Parade). In June 2016, President Barack Obama dedicated the Stonewall National Monument, which also encompasses adjoining Christopher Park; it’s the first US National Monument related to GLBT history. Inside the laid-back and still privately owned Stonewall, you’ll find historic photos lining the walls and, next to the entrance, a framed copy of a vintage police raid notice (pictured).
The Mississippi Freedom Trail connects more than a dozen sites having to do with that state’s civil rights heritage. Some places represent victories for progress; others were settings for horrific violence. Falling in the latter category: the house at 2332 Margaret Walker Alexander Drive in Jackson, where in 1963 NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was shot in the back and killed by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith (who wasn’t convicted of the murder until 1994) as Evers was leaving his car. Another mournful spot is along County Road 518 in rural Money, Mississippi. Inside the now abandoned and badly damaged Bryant’s Grocery Store, Chicago teenager Emmett Till, who was black, allegedly flirted with a white woman—for which Till was killed by two of the woman’s male relatives.
About 90 miles north of Money (and 200 miles north of Jackson), you’ll find the University of Mississippi in Oxford. The school’s historic core, the Circle, became ground zero for desegregation in higher education in 1962, when James Meredith became the first African American student to enroll at Ole Miss. A mob of opponents rioted and Meredith had to be escorted to school by the military. You can still see bullet holes from the confrontation above the entrance to the Lyceum building. A statue of Meredith (pictured) stands on campus today—not far from a monument honoring Confederate soldiers.
It’s hard to think of a more glaring example of U.S. wartime xenophobia than the decision by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration to detain more than 110,000 Japanese Americans—we’re talking about full citizens, mind you—in remote internment camps during World War Two. The best preserved of the sites is Manzanar, a dusty expanse in California’s Owens Valley, situated at the foot of the Sierra Nevada about 200 miles north of Los Angeles. There are reconstructed barracks and watchtowers, a cemetery (pictured), and peaceful ponds and rock gardens installed as symbols of hope. You can also pay your respects to prisoners at the cemetery on the site of the former Rohwer War Relocation Center in southeastern Arkansas, where actor George Takei and his family were incarcerated. The Honouliuli National Monument, located where an internment camp was set up in Hawaii, is currently under construction.
Named for a Confederate general and KKK leader, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma entered history books on March 7, 1965, when armed police officers attacked civil rights protestors marching across the bridge on their way to the state capital of Montgomery to demand voting rights. The incident became known as Bloody Sunday, and televised images of troopers violently assaulting peaceful demonstrators—a total of 17 had to be hospitalized—were instrumental in galvanizing support for the Voting Rights Act.
In the U.S., the push for Latino equality has often been entangled with the labor movement—never more so than in the work of Cesar Chavez, whose charismatic leadership of the United Farm Workers union (UFW) led to better conditions and collective bargaining rights for California’s predominantly Mexican-American agricultural laborers. Skilled at effecting change via nonviolent grassroots efforts like boycotts and hunger strikes, Chavez followed his motto, “si, se puede," long before Barack Obama translated it to “yes, we can.” Acknowledging his debt to Chavez, President Obama made UFW headquarters in Keene, California, a national monument in 2012. Visitors can take a look at Chavez’s untouched office and spend some time in a memorial garden containing his gravesite, a fountain (pictured), and roses that bloom year-round.
The Lincoln Memorial is hallowed ground in the American civil rights movement. It was here that Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his justly acclaimed “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of some 200,000 participants in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The spot was well chosen: Standing in front of a monument honoring the president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation 100 years earlier, King was there to demand that the freedom and equality guaranteed by that document finally be granted. In the process, he created one of the greatest moments in American oratory—matched only by Lincoln’s own Gettysburg Address. The spot on the steps where King gave the speech bears a simple inscription with King’s name and the date of the march under the words “I Have a Dream.”