March through history: Georgia stepping up with new civil rights trail – Atlanta Business Chroniclecldde
For people who want to learn something during their summer travels, the state is stepping up with a new civil rights trail timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The “Georgia’s Footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Trail,” which opened last month, includes 28 sites related both to King’s life and the broader history of the civil rights movement. Fittingly, 18 of the sites are in Atlanta, King’s hometown.
“Civil rights is woven into the fabric and soul of Atlanta,” said William Pate, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The whole story gets told here.”
The trail approach to heritage tourism has a long track record, going back decades to the 2.5-mile red-lined Freedom Trail linking Revolutionary War sites in Boston and more recently to the Civil War trails that cropped up in Georgia, Virginia and other states in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the war that freed the slaves.
“Trails are a great marketing tool,” said Kevin Langston, deputy commissioner of tourism at the Georgia Department of Economic Development, which designed the new trail in partnership with the King Center. “Trails aggregate content and make it easy for people to access information.”
Many of the Atlanta sites on the trail are clustered in and around the King Center and Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, Atlanta’s top tourist destination. The park includes the home where King was born in 1929, Ebenezer Baptist Church — where he served as co-pastor with his father, Martin Luther “Daddy” King Sr. — and the grave where King is buried beside his wife, Coretta Scott King.
While those sites and others in the Sweet Auburn Historic District are well-known, the new trail extends to sites in other parts of the city linked to King, notably the Atlanta University Center, where he was a student at Morehouse College, as well as sites associated with the Atlanta Student Movement. Launched in 1960, the student movement featured organized sit-ins modeled after the sit-ins at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., that led the department store chain to end its policy of racial segregation.
“There’s nothing like being where history actually took place,” Langston said. “It’s easier for people to wrap up the experience by being in a place where it happened.”
Jeanne Cyriaque, a cultural heritage specialist hired by the Department of Economic Development as a consultant on the project, said selecting the core sites at the King Center and the historical park was obvious. Coming up with sites for the trail beyond those took research, she said.
“We looked at where collections of the Martin Luther King legacy are found … at places where we could document the King legacy,” she said.
Examples include the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Atlanta University Center, which has a collection of documents that explores King’s relationship with the Atlanta Student Movement.
Sites on the trail outside of Atlanta include the Historic Dorchester Academy & Museum in Midway, Ga., south of Savannah, a school founded in the 19th century for freed slaves, where King planned his march on Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.
Albany, Ga., is another city with a civil rights history in which King played a prominent role. The trail features Albany’s Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, where King took part in mass meetings held in the early 1960s to organize protests against segregation and voting rights discrimination.
King gave his first public speech at the age of 14 at First Baptist Church in Dublin, Ga. After winning an oratory contest sponsored by the Colored Elks Clubs of Georgia, he spoke on the topic “The Negro and the Constitution.”
Cyriaque said King and an aunt were returning to Atlanta from that trip by bus when they were forced to give up their seats to white passengers and had to stand for the final 90 miles.
“I think that really had an impact on him,” she said. “Ten years later, he would be leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott.”
Cyriaque said the trail also includes sites related to King’s family, including Floyd Chapel Baptist Church in Stockbridge, Ga., where Daddy King was ordained and preached his first sermon. Daddy King’s parents, King’s grandparents, are buried in the cemetery at Rocky Mount Baptist Church in nearby Rex, Ga.
Although not directly linked to King, the new trail has two sites in Savannah, including First African Baptist Church, believed to be the oldest continually active African-American congregation in North America.
Cyriaque said the trail is being promoted with brochures that are available both at the trail sites and at Georgia’s welcome centers along interstate highways at the state’s borders. The state also has a website — exploregeorgia.org/footsteps — with details on the various sites.
“We wanted to develop a website because the younger generation are going to their phones first,” Cyriaque said.
Tourism promotion officials are optimistic the trail will be a success. Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, the tourism arm of the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce, said civil rights tourism is on the rise in part because the 50th anniversary of King’s death is calling more attention to the civil rights movement. Marinelli also pointed to the opening in late 2016 of the long-awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
“We feel the effects of that, even in Savannah,” Marinelli said.
Cyriaque said word is getting out about the new trail to the point a couple of sites ran out of brochures and had to ask for more.
“We’ve had overwhelming support from all the sites,” she said. “They’re really excited about it.”
OTHER GEORGIA SITES
• Albany Civil Rights Institute — Located in the newly restored 1906 Old Mount Zion Church, the Albany Civil Rights Museum and Institute uses oral histories, photographs, documents and artifacts, and educational exhibits to detail the civil rights struggle.
• Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church — Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church was a site where mass meetings were held during the Albany Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s.
• Prince Hall Masonic Temple — It was the site of a speech that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave to an audience of more than 1,000 people in 1958 during his inaugural year as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
• First African Baptist Church — On April 17, 1944, the site of Dr. King’s first public speech at the age of 14. The teenager had won an essay contest sponsored by the Colored Elks Clubs of Georgia.
• Martin Luther King Jr. Monument Park — Experience one child’s rise to greatness at Martin Luther King Jr. Monument Park, located at the gateway to downtown Dublin across from the First African Baptist Church.
• Historic Dorchester Academy & Museum — Dorchester Academy was founded after the Civil War as a school for freed slaves. This African-American historic site hosted Dr. Martin Luther King’s planning meetings for his 1963 march on Birmingham.
• Rocky Mount Baptist Church — The cemetery at Rocky Mount Baptist Church is the final resting place for Delia and James King, parents of Martin Luther King Sr., King Jr.’s father.
• Floyd Chapel Baptist Church — The Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. worshiped at the wooden church that existed at the site with his mother, Delia Lindsay King, during his childhood. He was ordained and preached his first sermon at Floyd Chapel.
• First African Baptist Church — Constituted in December 1777 by the Rev. George Leile, the First African Baptist Church is believed to be the oldest continually active, autonomously developed African-American congregation in North America. The church building, constructed around 1859, served as the birthplace of the area’s civil rights movement.
• Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum — The Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum chronicles the civil rights movement in Savannah, Georgia’s oldest city. The museum is named in honor of the Rev. Ralph Mark Gilbert, pastor of First African Baptist Church from 1939 to 1956 and president of the Savannah branch of the NAACP from 1942 to 1948.
Source: Georgia Department of Economic Development