The Civil Rights Trail
Text by Andrea Gross; Photos by Irv Green
At first glance it’s an unassuming little church, one that befits a small town in central Georgia. Along with about 20 other people, I walk through the arched doorway. A woman hands me a sheet of paper.
“Inside this building it is April 17, 1944”, she says, “and today, here in the First African Baptist Church of Dublin, we’re having an oratory contest. We will all attend that contest, and you will each play the part of the person whose name is on the paper.”
She pauses and smiles broadly. “The contestants include some of the top high school students from around the state, including a fifteen-year-old boy named Martin Luther King. The speech he gave that day was the first public speech of his career.”
King did well in the competition, but it wasn’t his speech, titled “The Negro and the Constitution,” that changed the course of history. It was what happened afterwards.
I look at my paper. I’m to play the part of Sarah Bradley, the teacher who accompanied King to the competition. I stand up when my name is called. I tell about our bus ride back to Atlanta, how Martin and I were told “by the brutish driver” to move to the back of the bus to make room for a group of white passengers, how Martin resisted but when I pleaded with him not to make a scene, we both moved to the back. It was, I say, the angriest he had ever been and a moment that would stick with him forever.
Later, back as my own self — a simple visitor to Dublin rather than a chaperone at an oratory contest — I realize that it was here that Martin Luther King began to formulate his dream to, in his words, “one day live in a nation where [people] will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
King’s vision has not yet been fully realized, but the fight for civil rights was brought into sharper focus in January 2018 with the launching of the United States Civil Rights Trail.
Spanning more than 100 sites in 15 states plus the District of Columbia, it showcases places that played significant roles during the Civil Rights Movement of the Fifties (when the first large demonstration against segregation took place in Montgomery) and the Sixties (when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis). By the Seventies the fight for equality had shifted to a new phase, one that hopefully will be explored in a future Civil Rights Trail.
The sites include well-known places, such as Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, where nine teenagers were refused entrance to an all-white high school as well as less familiar places such as Monroe Elementary School in Topeka Kansas, where segregationist policies led to the Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Board of Education) that legally ended racial segregation in the United States.
I begin my exploration of the Civil Rights Trail in Atlanta, the city where Martin Luther King was born and where he was living with his wife and children when, having gone on a quick trip to Memphis to give a speech, he was assassinated.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site tells King’s story through a variety of buildings and exhibits. Visitors can tour his boyhood home, visit the church where he was baptized as well as the neighborhood that nurtured him, and sit down for a quiet moment near the reflecting pool that surrounds his tomb and that of his wife, Coretta Scott King.
It’s less than a two-hour drive to Macon, home of the Tubman Museum, which is the largest museum in the United States dedicated to the art, history and culture of African Americans. Wilfred Stroud’s mural, “From Africa to America,” depicts the history of his people in nine panels that are dynamic, informative and totally mesmerizing.
My next stop is the Albany Civil Rights Institute which houses a display reminding people of the time when African Americans were forced to sit in the back of he bus.
Albany is also where a group of young teens used music to publicize the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Rutha Mae Harris, now 76 years old and the only one of the original Freedom Singers who still performs regularly, enters a small auditorium adjacent to the Albany Civil Rights Institute.
She sits down on the edge of the stage, flashes a megawatt smile and tells us how folksinger Pete Seeger felt that the group’s heartfelt songs, which were often derived from familiar hymns or spirituals, would galvanize folks who lived far from the racial turmoil that was engulfing the South in the early Sixties.
Less than a year later, the teens had travelled to 46 of the then-48 states, singing songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine.” They performed alone, with Seeger, and eventually with other well-known entertainers such as Peter, Paul and Mary, John Denver and Bob Dylan.
Rutha pauses, takes a deep breath and, oh my, her voice fills the room. Shivers run up my spine as this woman belts out songs that showed how courageous leaders and ordinary people fought, prayed and, yes, sang to win equal rights for all people. Her voice is powerful, her passion undeniable.
At the end of my tour, with the songs of the Freedom Singers still ringing in my ears, my thoughts go back to that time nearly 75 years ago when a fifteen-year-old boy and his teacher were forced to go to the back of the bus. Today, in front of Dublin’s First Baptist Church of Dublin, a giant mural shows a young girl who, by blowing on a dandelion, which is the ancient symbol of hope, expresses her wish that Martin Luther King’s dream will continue to inspire future generations.
For more on these specific destinations and others on the trail, go to Napkin Notes section of this website.