Civil rights sites recall struggle for freedom
February 1, 2022 | View PDF
As the Civil War drew to a close, soldiers of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiments occupied a plantation on James Island, South Carolina, which earlier had been held by Confederate forces. They were among the approximately 185,000 U.S. Colored Troops, as they were called, who fought with the North.
Visitors may relive that chapter of history, and the story of African slaves who lived and toiled at the plantation. This is one of numerous sites around the country which recount pages from the fight for freedom and equality that has been waged by segments of our population.
Plantations, churches and schools are among locations where skirmishes in the effort took place. Some serve as reminders of tragedies, others of victories, in the struggle.
The McLeod Plantation was established in 1851 near Charleston. The property includes the main house, slave cabins, a cotton ginning house and sweeping oak tree allee (alley).
Churches have played a major role in the Black civil rights movement. They long have been a source of the struggle for equality, and at times the site of violence.
At the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a clock is frozen at 10:22. That was the time on September 15, 1963 when a bomb exploded, killing four black girls between 11 and 14 years old. The church was targeted by members of the Ku Klux Klan because it was a place where civil rights activists met and trained. It continues to house an active congregation and also is open for tours.
Probably the most famous, or infamous, school that captured headlines related to the civil rights movement is Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools are unconstitutional and that children may not be denied admission because of their race. Three years later, when nine African-American students sought to enroll in all-White Central High, they were blocked.
It took an order by President Dwight Eisenhower, who directed the Arkansas National Guard to escort the youngsters into the building, to end the impasse. Central High remains a functioning school which, according to its motto, seeks to help "all students feel valued and respected . . . in a diverse and changing world."
Other places, some well-known and others somewhat surprising, provide introductions to the fight for equality. The National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C., which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, is the largest in the world devoted to its topic.
The focus of permanent collections ranges from activism and the American West to religious groups and segregation. Exhibits like Louis Armstrong's trumpet paint a positive picture, while others – iron collars from slave ships and a rope used in a lynching – are not for the faint of heart.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson houses interactive galleries that demonstrate "the systematic oppression of Black Mississippians and their fight for Equality." They also recall the brave responses of those who challenged racism.
Medgar Evers Home Museum in the same city honors the civil rights leader who in 1963 was assassinated in the driveway of his house. He was returning home from a meeting carrying T-shirts that read "Jim Crow Must Go."
Martin Luther King, Jr., is memorialized by buildings, highways and other monuments around the country that bear his name. The most poignant reminder is the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was fatally shot on April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony. The building now is part of the National Civil Rights Museum, which traces the history of human rights from the 17th century to the present.
Of course, the fight for equality in the United States isn't restricted to African Americans. A Native American civil rights movement that was born in the 1960s led to the occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, site of the former prison.
The demonstrators maintained control there for 19 months, claiming it was compensation for the U.S. government's violation of numerous treaties. They offered to pay for it with beads and trinkets.
Two places associated with the fight for Latino/Hispanic rights are the National Chavez Center and Cesar Chavez National Monument in California. They recall the legacy of the labor activist who is remembered for fighting for the rights of migrant farm workers.
His most memorable achievement was spearheading a strike of grape pickers in 1965. The protest lasted five years and led to boycotts that ultimately resulted in an agreement that provided benefits to the workers. That and more of his accomplishments are recalled where Chavez is buried near the former headquarters of the United Farm Workers of America.
When you visit any of these monuments to the civil rights movement, remember that they are much more than brick and mortar. Each tells a story of hardship and sacrifice, along with victory over hate and prejudice by those who fought, and sometimes died, for their cause.