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Discover 10 important civil rights sites in the Midwest and South

Exhibits at the Montgomery Interpretive Center relate the history of the last leg of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March. Photo courtesy Alabama Tourism Department (ATD)/Chris Granger

The fight for civil rights has a long, painful, and complex history in the United States, yet these stories must be told. Across the South and Midwest, scores of museums, trails, schools, and other sites preserve the legacy of those who sought equality, and they examine the impact of those struggles on today’s culture.

Here are 10 places—including important stops on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail—where we can travel in the footsteps of courageous people who forged a difficult path.

Winston Churchill said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” These civil rights sites help us confront the past and inspire a continuing pursuit for freedom.

1. Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Park

Topeka, Kansas

Visitors at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site

The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site examines one of the Supreme Court's most pivotal decisions. Photo courtesy Kansas Tourism

In 1950, third-grader Linda Brown lived in an integrated neighborhood in Topeka yet couldn’t attend her local school. She was one of 20 Black children named in a lawsuit filed by 13 parents to gain admission to the schools near them rather one of just 4 city schools designated for African Americans. Because her father, Oliver Brown, was the first parent listed, the case became known as Brown v. Board of Education.

In a unanimous Supreme Court decision, the justices ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” making segregation illegal in public schools. Linda Brown’s school, Monroe Elementary, became a national historic site in 1992 to commemorate the ruling. Galleries and exhibits weave a story from segregation to integration and share the legacy of the momentous case.

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2. Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

Little Rock, Arkansas

A visitor taking a picture on his phone of an old image displayed at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site’s collection of photos, news footage, and interviews brings to light the contentiousness of the school's integration. Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism (ADPHT)

Even after Brown vs. Board of Education, integration faced regular challenges in schools. One of those tests occurred at Little Rock’s Central High School, where 9 Black children were chosen to integrate the city’s schools in 1957. The governor sent the Arkansas National Guard to block the children from the school. President Eisenhower ordered federal troops to move forward with integration and protect the students, who became known as the Little Rock Nine.

Discover their story in the national park’s visitors center across from the school. News footage, interviews, exhibits, and an interpretive film return you to those explosive days.

The “Testament” sculpture depicting the Little Rock Nine

The “Testament” sculpture near the Arkansas Capitol pays tribute to the Little Rock Nine’s courage and perseverance. Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism (ADPHT)

The National Park Service provides daily tours that go by Central High School, which is still active. Also, don’t miss “Testament,” a collection of bronze statues outside the Capitol in Little Rock that honors the students’ courage and character.

You may also like: Celebrate 100 years of Arkansas State Parks

3. National Civil Rights Museum

Memphis, Tennessee

A statue of Rosa Parks beside a bus at the National Civil Rights Museum

Compelling exhibits at the National Civil Rights Museum place visitors in significant moments in the movement's history. By Andrea Zucker

Cross the Arkansas border into Memphis, and you’ll land at one of the most inspirational sites on your journey, the National Civil Rights Museum. The iconic museum reminds us that civil rights wasn’t just about a single decade, but 5 centuries of history. Artifacts, films, interactive media, and oral histories take you from slavery through the modern era.

This museum complex does a wonderful job placing visitors in other people’s shoes. A moving experience is sitting on a bus near a statue of Rosa Parks. Another powerful moment is seeing the Lorraine Motel room where Martin Luther King Jr. spent his final hours and standing at the spot where he was assassinated.

You may also like: Explore America’s musical heritage on a road trip through the South

4. Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail


The Edmund Pettus Bridge

Site of the 1965 Bloody Sunday attack on civil rights marchers, Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge is a National Historic Landmark. Photo courtesy Alabama Tourism Department (ATD)/Art Meripol

You can’t talk about the history of civil rights without including Alabama. The Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail provides a good introduction to the state’s place in the movement. The 54-mile journey follows the route that voting-rights activists took in 1965, and 3 interpretive centers along the way provide context.

Start at the Selma Interpretative Center at the foot of the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge, where law enforcement officers attacked marchers on what became known as Bloody Sunday.

As you follow U.S. Highway 80 along the route, trail markers highlighting important landmarks guide the way. Find more exhibits at the Lowndes Interpretive Center, located roughly at the trail’s halfway mark.

The last interpretive center is on the Alabama State University campus in Montgomery. It’s less than 2 miles from the Capitol, where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a crowd of 25,000 people at the march’s conclusion.

You may also like: The outdoor Alabama Shakespeare Festival celebrates 50 years

5. Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

Jackson, Mississippi

The outside of the connected Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and Museum of Mississippi History

The connected Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History tell the story of the state from prehistoric times to the civil rights movement and beyond. Photo by Tom Beck/courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History

The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum sets the stage for the modern civil rights movement during the years following the Civil War. Eight galleries span more than a century of life in the state, from the end of slavery to the oppression and segregation of the 20th century. Artifacts, immersive theaters, interactive touch-screen displays, and stunning photos showcase how Mississippi was ground zero for the movement.

Part of an exhibit inside the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

Eight interactive galleries in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum focus on Black Mississippians' fight for equality. Photo by Tom Beck/courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Among the exhibits, the museum delves into experiences and events that ignited the civil rights movement, such as the deaths of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers. You’ll also see how the 1964 Freedom Summer led to a mass registration of voters despite the violence that volunteers faced.

6. Emmett Till Interpretive Center

Sumner, Mississippi

A photograph of Emmett Till inside the Emmett Till Interpretive Center

The Emmett Till Interpretive Center is located in the restored courthouse where his murder trial occurred. Photo courtesy Emmett Till Interpretive Center

In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi. Soon after an interaction with a white female store owner, Till was found brutally murdered. Many believe the incident was a catalyst for the modern civil rights movement, influencing later heroes like Rosa Parks.

The trial that acquitted the men who murdered Till took place in Sumner. For years, town leaders hoped the case would fade from people’s memories, but it didn’t.

A year after the 2005 founding of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, the Till family received a public apology. Sumner Courthouse was then restored to its 1955 appearance and turned into the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, which tells his story with a mission based in the apology’s first line—racial reconciliation begins by telling the truth.

You may also like: A road trip along Mississippi’s Blues Trail

7. Louisiana Civil Rights Trail


An archival photo of the 1967 march from Bogalusa to Baton Rouge

One stop on the Louisiana Civil Rights Trail recalls the 1967 march from Bogalusa to Baton Rouge that brought a list of grievances about discrimination and racial violence to Louisiana's capital. Photo courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism

Louisiana is no stranger to civil rights struggles. Like Little Rock, New Orleans tested the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling when 6-year-old Ruby Bridges became the first African American to integrate New Orleans schools. Her school is one of more than a dozen locations on the Louisiana Civil Rights Trail that highlight significant people, places, and events in the campaign for equal rights.

A popular New Orleans trail stop is Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. Civil rights leaders once met in the upstairs dining room to discuss integrating the city. The restaurant still draws politicians and musicians.

A sign showing where Black residents waited for carpool rides during a 1953 bus boycott

A marker at the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge shows where Black residents waited for carpool rides during a 1953 bus boycott. Photo by Don Redman

Another notable location near the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge marks a place under an oak tree where Black workers gathered for carpools during a bus boycott initiated because a housekeeper was threatened with arrest for sitting in the “white section” of a bus.

You may also like: Tracing a journey back to freedom on Louisiana's Solomon Northup Trail

8. Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Kansas City, Missouri

Statues of legendary Black baseball players positioned around a mock baseball diamond

A mock baseball diamond featuring legendary Black players is among the highlights at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Photo courtesy Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Inc.

For more than 60 years, Major League Baseball had a color barrier. Created in 1920, the Negro National League provided a way for Black players to play ball. In 1945, the Brooklyn Dodgers recruited Jackie Robinson from the league’s best team, the Kansas City Monarchs.

The expansion of sports integration shined a light on other forms of segregation, as African American players often were forced to eat in separate restaurants and stay in separate hotels.

To tell this powerful story, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum opened its doors in 1991, only 2 blocks from where the league was established. Due to its popularity, the museum moved to a new 10,000-square-foot complex in the 18th and Vine Jazz District 6 years later. Video presentations and memorabilia include 10 life-size bronze sculptures of players positioned around a mock baseball diamond.

You may also like: Show-me history: touring Missouri's historic sites

9. Evansville African American Museum

Evansville, Indiana

The outside of the Evansville African American Museum

Located in a former federal housing development, the Evansville African American Museum examines the history and contributions of the city's Black community. Photo by Roger Angermeier

The Lincoln Gardens Housing Development was dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt as the second federal housing project of the New Deal. Sixty years later, the building was scheduled to be demolished, but a group of former residents intervened and proposed turning the building into the Evansville African American Museum.

Opened in 2007, the combination museum and community center highlights contributions of Indiana’s African Americans. From the distinguished columns outside to the stories told by quilts inside, the museum presents a fascinating history. One section of the complex is preserved as an original 1930s apartment. Guests are encouraged to schedule their visit by calling (812) 423-5188.

10. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Springfield, Illinois

An exhibit at the Lincoln Museum showing the former president standing pensively at his desk

Learn how Lincoln wrestled with the human toll of slavery and the Civil War through exhibits at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Photo courtesy Illinois Office of Tourism

Illinois’ capital is home to one of the country’s largest presidential museums. Extending over a city block in downtown Springfield, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum immerses you in history with exhibits designed by a former Disney “Imagineer,” the name for the creative visionaries behind Disney’s rides, parks, and attractions.

The museum is divided into 2 journeys. The first examines Lincoln’s early life and includes a life-size depiction of a slave auction tearing a family apart. Scholars believe seeing such events cemented Lincoln’s opposition to slavery.

A life-size model of Abraham Lincoln watching his cabinet react to his plans to issue the Emancipation Proclamation

The dramatic moment when Abraham Lincoln told his cabinet about his plans to issue the Emancipation Proclamation is captured in a Lincoln Museum diorama. Photo courtesy Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

On the second journey, which studies Lincoln’s presidency, a powerful life-size scene shows Lincoln introducing the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, who did not all agree with him. The Treasures Gallery displays the museum’s most significant artifacts from a vast collection of Lincolniana.

Karen Gibson is a contributor from Norman, Oklahoma.

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