Remarks by Lee Sentell on the release of his book “The Official U.S. Civil Rights Trail: What happened here changed the world.” Wednesday, June 23, 2021, at The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, Atlanta
For Americans interested in advancing social justice, the ground shifted dramatically last week. In just a few days, both houses of Congress, the White House and most governors’ offices across this country acted in unison to establish a new government holiday that commemorates the end of slavery and celebrates Black achievement.
A day called Juneteenth doesn’t rank anywhere close to passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, but it is a symbolic nod in the right direction. We should hope that discussion of this new holiday will encourage a greater awareness and discussion about the dreadful practice of involuntary bondage that began four centuries ago.
After the American Civil War, Congress passed and states ratified amendments to the Constitution that granted citizenship to former slaves, promised them equal protection of the law, and granted them the right to vote. These people and their descendants struggled in vain for the next century to achieve the rights clearly promised them by the Constitution.
Increasingly emboldened descendants of these slaves risked their lives 60 years ago during the period known as the Civil Rights Movement and slowly turned the tide of history. Court decisions and Congress delivered many of the freedoms that Blacks had been denied that Whites have always taken for granted.
In the last few years, tourism directors in a dozen states selected about 120 landmarks for inclusion on a civil rights trail. Today, the schools, courthouses and homes where the conflicts occurred are sacred ground that Americans and international citizens are discovering. Luckie Advertising created a comprehensive website. Hopefully, this book that Miles Wright designed around Art Meripol’s photographs will inspire more visitors to discover that what happened in these places truly changed the world.
The book begins with a timeline of 35 major legal events starting when when Black pilots trained at Tuskegee early in World War II, and President Truman integrated the military. This was followed by two decades of numerous civil rights demonstrations and protests and court decisions across 15 states and the District of Columbia.
There are chapters of the 14 cities that currently have the most substantial civil rights destinations. The book ends in Memphis and Atlanta with the passing of Dr. King. Going forward, the 15th city will be Charleston, S.C., where the International African American Museum is under construction.
Beyond touring important landmarks, visitors have the opportunity to discover the stories of lesser known boys and girls, men and women whose courage propelled them into history. Barbara Johns in Virginia, Daisy Lee Bates in Little Rock, Franklin McCain in Greensboro, Diane Nash in Nashville, Homer Plessy in New Orleans, James Earl Chaney of Meridian, and A.Z. Young and Robert Hicks of Bogalusa, among others.
This book is designed to encourage travel to these historic sites. Atlanta journalist Shelia Poole asked me a fair question the other day: Is anybody coming? The answer is Yes, the world is already coming to tour the sacred ground of civil rights sites across the South.
When the southern state tourism directors launched the U.S. Civil Rights Trail in 2018, I told The New York Times that we projected five million people would spend $725 million visiting these destinations that year. Based on surveys, we think we were in the ballpark.
The Smithsonian’s African American history museum attracts two million visitors in a normal year. The Equal Justice Initiative’s lynching memorial in Montgomery hosted 500,000 people its second year.
Groups are returning this year. The New York Times and the Smithsonian Institute are sponsoring their first group tour arrivals a week apart in October for seven-day stays.
Trafalgar Travel, one of Europe’s largest group tour companies, is advertising multiple trips next year. Its tour will arrive in Memphis and travel across Mississippi and Alabama before concluding here in Atlanta.
The most ambitious trip on the books for next year so far, Wild Frontiers Travel based in London is marketing a 13-day “Journey Through America’s Deep South” itinerary. It begins with two days in Charleston, then travels to Savannah, Americus, Plains, Auburn, Tuskegee, Montgomery, Selma, Jackson, Natchez, and ending with three nights in New Orleans.
In 2023, the 55th anniversary of Dr. King’s passing, it is likely the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park and the King Center will welcome north of a million visitors. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis will likely host more than a half million visitors that anniversary year.
In closing, Thank you Superintendent Judy Forte for allowing us to be here today, and to Dr. Bernice King, thank for your wisdom and continued leadership. To you all, I hope you enjoy the book.