The US Civil Rights Trail charts the momentous fight for racial equality that has spanned decades and numerous states, educating visitors about the advancements achieved and the work still to be done.
The trail was created by marketing collective Travel South USA. Its opening was announced on January 15, on what would have been Martin Luther King’s 88th birthday.
Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department, was one of the tourism representatives who led the trail project.
He says: “The trail is a collection of more than 100 churches, schools, courthouses and public buildings, primarily in the southern states, where significant events from the civil rights era happened in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Many of these events were scenes of struggle, confrontation and occasional violence, which made the news and rendered these locations famous.”
The bulk of the landmarks are within the 12 south-eastern states, with additional sites in Kansas and Delaware.
The most famous sites include the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King was assassinated; Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, where police attacked demonstrators campaigning for African-American voting rights on Bloody Sunday; and the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, the site of a sit-in after four black students were refused service.
Another site is the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Sentell says the trail also highlights “lesser-known but equally important” sites. These include the school in the small town of Farmville, Virginia, where two 16 year olds organised a strike, campaigning for black students to have access to the same facilities as white students.
Then there’s the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi where the men who murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till were tried, and tragically found not guilty of his murder.
For fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, a visit to Monroeville, Alabama and the Old Courthouse Museum that was the model for Harper Lee’s courtroom setting in the book (and film) is a must.
Alabama is a good starting point on the trail, with around 30 landmarks in the state, including 10 in the capital of Montgomery.
Atlanta, Georgia has seven, including Martin Luther King’s birthplace and grave, which are just steps apart in the downtown area.
Sentell recommends five weeks for clients looking to complete the entire trail, and directs agents towards the dedicated Civil Rights Trail website (civilrightstrail.com), an invaluable resource highlighting landmarks and destinations to visit.
Agent fam trips are in the planning stages, with Travel South USA looking for travel agent and tour operator participants at World Travel Market London this year.
Travel South USA hopes visitor numbers to civil rights areas will increase by between 10 and 15% this year. There are also plans for a dozen landmarks to become Unesco World Heritage Sites within the next two years, which should further boost visitor interest and numbers.
Sentell expects 11 million visitors to tour the civil rights museums in 2018, spending about $1.6 billion on tickets, souvenirs, transport and accommodation.
Tour operators such as Travelsphere, Just You and America as You Like It are currently selling the trail.
Cath Pusey, product director at America As You Like It, says: “There is quite an interest from clients for our Civil Rights Trail: Journey to Freedom holiday and it’s selling well.
Clients are keen to know more about the civil rights struggle and its recent history, but also to experience the unique southern culture – with its distinctive music, food and welcoming hospitality – that the region is so well known for.”