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Some U.S. states have their own civil rights trails, with Alabama’s being one of the most robust, but now a national trail through 14 states is presenting new tourism opportunities.
The U.S. Civil Rights Trail is poised to launch this week and it will include more than 120 attractions, mostly in the American South.
The trail is the latest indication of the increased appeal and growth of civil rights tourism. Among the signals, the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, the country’s first state-sponsored civil rights museum, has attracted high praise; tickets to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., the first such national museum, must be booked months ahead; and there is increased investment in new and revamped civil rights museums across the American South.
Both the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the “Blacksonian” in the nation’s capital are on the new trail, and highlighted among its top 10 attractions.
The U.S. Civil Rights Trail’s new website is designed to inspire travelers and assist them in planning trips, though individual tourism boards will handle more localized information on accommodations and restaurants, according to Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department. Sentell took a leading role in creating the trail.
“It’s easy using the trail to pick and choose the sites that will be most meaningful to you and combine them into a trip,” said Kevin Langston, deputy commissioner, tourism division for the Georgia Department of Economic Development. Langston aided in creating the trail and Georgia State University in Atlanta contributed historical research.
“There’s a state line which unofficially divides [Georgia and Alabama], but the reality is the movement didn’t see those conditions and tourists don’t need to either,” said Langston. “Maybe the sites that we have in Atlanta for whatever reason aren’t enough for [someone] to make that next step and actually plan a trip. But if they see what’s only three hours away to get to these sites in Montgomery, Birmingham, and other places, that actually could make for a week or 10-day trip, and that’s good business for all of us.”
Montgomery has more sites on the trail than any other participating city.
“This has been on our radar for a long time,” said Meg Lewis — director of brand development at the Montgomery CVB in Alabama — of the trail.
International Tourism on the Rise
Sentell of the Alabama Tourism Department sees the trail’s potential for boosting international visitation to civil rights sites, which is already steady.
“Europeans are hungry for information and destinations on this topic,” said Sentell. “At least in the Deep South, we see that Europeans come to the South because they’re interested in music, food, and civil rights.”
“I think what we’re most likely to see is continued growth, especially in international travelers,” said Lewis of the Montgomery CVB. “We see visitors from the UK, Australia, German visitors, and they are doing their second, third, fourth trips to the United States, and now are very specifically seeking the civil rights and Southern cultural attractions. They’ve been doing parts of this trail for quite a few years and now that there’s a cohesive way to experience it across multiple states, I think that’s just going to continue to feed that visitor group and make it easier for them to prolong their stay.”
Atlanta, Georgia, already a major hub for international travel, is also invested in international visitation to the trail. “I just got back from Europe,” said Langston, “and we’re working with several tour operators over there who are really excited about adding a couple of tours this year that have to do with civil rights history.”
Smaller markets benefit from visibility abroad as well. “There’s a lot of interest in the Mississippi story, not just domestic but international,” said Craig Ray, director of Visit Mississippi, who helped create the trail. “We partner with the city of Memphis in so many tourism areas, specifically on international marketing.”
Memphis’ National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel — the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination — is highlighted as one of the trail’s top 10 attractions and recently completed a $27.5 million renovation.
About the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Ray said, “It’s only been open for a month and we’ve already had 25,000 visitors. Travel to the museums has been very popular.”
Ray referred to both the civil rights museum and the Museum of Mississippi History right next door — the two museums opened as a pair in December, with the latter receiving top billing. Ray also cited an uptick in hotel occupancy in Jackson over the last month.
The Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi tourism boards reported having no data on the percentage of visitors interested in civil rights sites.
Gaps in the Trail
Travel South USA and all 14 state tourism boards collaborated on the trail with support from the former director of the National Park Service, Jonathan Jarvis. Some sites on the trail are already affiliated with the park service.
However, conspicuously missing from that list of participating states is Florida.
“We were looking at the period roughly from 1954 to ‘68, but there are no landmarks still existing that help a visitor get an experience,” said Sentell about Florida having fewer physical remains of its civil rights history. “There was certainly no bias against either Florida or Texas because they’re not a part of Travel South.”
Neither Texas nor Florida are part of the new trail.
Travelers frequently break down Florida and Texas by region. North Florida and East Texas arguably have the most shared history with the Deep South and both states overall have ample history with segregation, Jim Crow, and the civil rights struggle.
Neither Florida nor Texas developed a prominent statewide civil rights trail, and they lack a major museum on the topic to rival others in the South. Local tourism boards pick up the slack. For example, Saint Augustine, Florida, a hub for black history, has an original Woolworth lunch counter and King-related sites.
Coming Up Next for Civil Rights Tourism
The next big attraction in civil rights tourism will open on April 26: the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
This memorial to the victims of lynching, and an accompanying museum, will be the country’s first major effort on this topic. It is backed by a massive research project in which EJI chronicled more than 4,000 lynchings between 1877 and 1950. The severity of the subject matter coupled with an immersive, highly emotional design may quickly put this memorial prominently on the map.
About the possibility of EJI’s memorial joining the trail, Lewis said, “We hope it could be thought of as a site on the trail.” Lewis also noted that downtown Montgomery’s first boutique hotel is going up in 2019, a few blocks away from the memorial.
“I think you might see the trail continue to drive international tourism while the [EJI] museum and memorial bring in this whole new wave of domestic visitors who want to come here the same way they want to go do the experience in D.C.,” said Lewis, referring to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
With the roiling debate around removing Confederate monuments, less attention is being paid to replacing these monuments or creating new ones from different perspectives, for example EJI’s memorial to bring attention to the scourge of lynchings. Among other destinations, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Biloxi, Mississippi, removed Confederate symbols with the idea to be more welcoming to visitors and residents.
“My personal opinion is there’s been an overreaction in the removal of history just because it’s out of fashion,” said Sentell.