Follow the Life of Martin Luther King Jr. Across the American South
One of the most prominent U.S. civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. was instrumental in obtaining voting rights and desegregation policies for African-American people throughout the country. Given his dedication to pacifism and refusal to fight violence with violence, he became a broader symbol of peaceful protest — a reminder of the change that individuals can make in an unjust society.
As we reflect on King's life and the lives of all the leaders, past and present, who have bravely fought to end systemic racism and secure equal rights for all, we return to those places where history happened. Places like Birmingham, Alabama, an epicenter of organization, action, and tragedy during the civil rights movement, and Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. King was assassinated. When the time is right to travel again, follow in Martin Luther King Jr.'s footsteps on a road trip through Georgia, Washington, D.C., Tennessee, and Alabama.
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Travelers can start at the beginning by visiting the two-story childhood home of the civil rights leader at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta, Georgia. Visitors to King's home can also take a brief walk to the nearby Ebenezer Baptist Church, where his father was a preacher and where King himself was ordained as a minister in 1948.
After lunch at a one of Atlanta's many great restaurants, admirers of King's life can pay respects to his grave site and memorial at The King Center.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is a must-see in Washington, D.C. The expansive collection tracks the cultural and historical contributions of African-American people from the birth of the country until present day. Artifacts include Harriet Tubman's prayer book and shawl, Chuck Berry's Cadillac, and the casket of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy whose gruesome murder helped spark the civil rights movement.
The museum is situated on the National Mall, where King made his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.
“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,” he told thousands of supporters stretching toward the Washington Monument. “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
King was shot and killed the night of April 4, 1968 while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. An escaped convict shot King when he was staying in town to organize around the issue of economic equality for sanitation workers, and he was pronounced dead upon arrival to the local hospital. He was 39 years old.
Since then, a complex of buildings, including the motel, have been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum. Visitors can see the room where King was staying the night of his death and explore a variety of exhibits related to the 1960s civil rights movement as well as the history of American slavery.
Selma and Montgomery, Alabama
Montgomery and Selma are both part of the United States Civil Rights Trail, with a number of well-preserved historical sites. Upon hearing of Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of the bus, King went to Montgomery, Alabama, where he helped lead bus boycotts and other demonstrations, aimed at dismantling the systematic segregation of African-Americans in public spaces.
In 1965, King and hundreds of others attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery in a demonstration for voting rights. State and local authorities met the demonstrators with violent resistance on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, severely injuring dozens of people in graphic footage that was shown on the nightly news, in an event that became known as Bloody Sunday.
King and his supporters would eventually complete their march with the protection of the Alabama National Guard, among others. Visitors can make their own pilgrimage to the Edmund Pettus Bridge today.
This southern city was also a focal point of King's organizing, and it is home to several monuments as well as a series of historical placards throughout the town that allow visitors to make their own guided walking tour.
Historic sites include 16th Street Baptist Church, where Ku Klux Klan members planted a bomb during services in 1963, killing four young girls. The nearby Gaston Motel served as an impromptu headquarters for King during his time in Birmingham, and it was also the site of a bombing.
King spent several days in Birmingham Jail for organizing a protest, and it was during this time that he wrote his seminal "Letter From Birmingham Jail," an open letter that became one of the best-known documents of the movement.
“We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom,” he wrote. “Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America.”