On the anniversary of Emmett Till’s death, and with the case recently reopened, we are launching a two-part series on the national Civil Rights Trail, which tells the story of our nation’s racial progress.
On August 28, 1955, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam drove to a stranger’s house in the early hours of the morning with the intent of abducting the individual who slighted Bryant by flirting with his wife. Accounts vary, but what is generally conceded as the truth is that Emmett Till (pictured) and a group of friends went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, where Till whistled at Roy’s wife, Caroline Bryant. When Roy caught word of the story, he and Milam bound Till’s body and brought him home in the bed of a pickup truck, where, later in the day, they took Till to a barn in Drew, Mississippi, and badly beat him before shooting him in the head above his ear. His body was weighted down with a stolen fan blade that was secured around his neck with barbed wire, then thrown into the Tallahatchie River. Three days later, Till’s battered and disfigured body was found in the river. He was 14 years old.
Stories like these proliferated the news for decades—and still do—serving as symbols of the horrific ways African Americans were treated in the South. The sites of these crimes and their counterparts, locations of peaceful protests and sit-ins, have long existed but are only in recent years being celebrated as historical landmarks. For years, each state has assembled a pinpointed map of their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, but for the first time, the United States has tracked a national Civil Rights Trail that encompasses a nation’s story of progression through both its faults and its victories.
This is part one of our compilation of some of the most notable sites on the trail, starting in Kansas and traveling down through the Deep South.
Topeka. In 1950, Kansas law allowed districts to maintain racially segregated schools in certain communities. Despite this, the NAACP gathered 13 parents to take their 20 black children to their neighborhoods’ white schools in an attempt to register for the upcoming school year. Each child was refused admission due to their skin color. The parents collectively filed a lawsuit under the named plaintiff Oliver L. Brown against the Topeka Board of Education. The case reached the Supreme Court and eventually overturned Plessy v. Ferguson’s 1896 decision. Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka ruled that “separate but equal educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Monroe Elementary, where Brown’s daughter was enrolled, was established as a historic site in 1992. It has since been rehabilitated to include a civil rights center. The nearby Sumner Elementary is currently vacant, but plans exist to renovate it as a civil rights memorial.
Independence. Pres. Truman’s hometown of Independence houses the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. This landmark memorializes Truman’s efforts to move the country toward racial equality. His involvement was key in the desegregation of the armed forces, a process which continued when he sent more than 1,700 National Guard troops into Kansas City to help de-escalate the rioting that took place in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum features two decision theaters, audio and video programming and interactive exhibits.
St. Louis. St. Louis was home to Dred and Harriet Scott, who, in 1846, took legal action to declare themselves free of slavery. They filed separate petitions at the St. Louis Circuit Court—also known as the Old Courthouse—where their case was first heard on June 30, 1847. It was quickly dismissed on a technicality, but it eventually reached the Supreme Court a decade later. They ruled that, because Scott was not white, he was not a citizen, and he, therefore, did not have the federal standing to sue. Additionally, the Supreme Court found that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which struck down slavery in certain territories, was unconstitutional. Both of these findings were catalysts for the Civil War several years later. More than 20 after, in the same courthouse, Virginia Minor filed a lawsuit that argued for her right to vote under the 14th Amendment. While the court ruled against Minor, it laid the road for the future of the women’s suffrage movement. The Old Courthouse is just two blocks away from the Gateway Arch.
In the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement, J.D. Shelley moved to St. Louis to escape racial tensions in the Deep South. Unknowingly, he purchased a house in a racially restricted area. This prompted an extensive legal battle that culminated in 1948 with the Supreme Court ruling that racially restrictive covenants between landlords could not be enforced by courts. While these covenants were not outlawed, this decision asserted that all citizens were equally protected under the law. Although the Shelley House is a National Historic Landmark, it is a private residence not open for touring.
Little Rock. Following the decision of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, nine African-American students enrolled in the formerly all-white Little Rock Central High School. On September 4, 1957, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus resisted, calling in the Arkansas National Guard to block these students from entering the school. In response, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent federal troops to ensure that these students, later known as the Little Rock Nine, could safely enter the building. By the end of September, all nine students were properly admitted to Little Rock Central High School. Today, the Little Rock Nine Memorial is viewable at the State Capitol, and visitors can further explore the still-operating school or the Old State House Museum located at the original Capitol of Arkansas.
Baton Rouge. T.J. Jemison led the nation’s first bus boycott against segregated seating in 1953. Jemison’s eight-day effort inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama two years later.
On March 28, 1960, students from Southern University and A&M College began a sit-in movement at lunch counters at Kress and Sitman’s and the waiting room and lunch counter of the Baton Rouge Greyhound Bus Station. Tours of the campus are available Monday through Thursday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
The battle continued when, on August 10, 1967, A.Z. Young and Robert Hicks began a 106-mile march to Baton Rouge to raise awareness of violence against African-Americans. Their campaign ended on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol, a 34-story building located at North Third Street on State Capitol Drive. The marching party was protected by more than 2,000 National Guardsmen and police officers after the leaders appealed to the federal government for protection against white segregationists. Visitors can tour the observation deck of the State Capitol between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. admission free.
New Orleans. In 1960, six-year-old Ruby Bridges passed a test that allowed her to attend William Frantz Elementary, an all-white school. Ruby was escorted daily by federal marshals to protect her from angry segregationists, threats and harassment. In the classroom, teachers refused to instruct a black student, and parents pulled their children out of class. In the home, Ruby’s father lost his jobs and her grandparents lost their land. Stories persist of families who broke through crowds to continue bringing their white children to school, of a neighbor who employed Ruby’s father and others who protected Ruby’s home. William Frantz Elementary today functions as a charter school under the name Akili Academy, outside of which stands a statue of Ruby in the courtyard. One classroom has been restored to look the way it would have when Ruby attended class. Tours can be arranged through the Akili Academy website. New Orleans is also home to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which overlooks Lafayette Square, where the “Fifth Four” resided. The Fifth Four were the judges who made it possible for students like Ruby to attend formerly all-white schools.
Canton. Volunteers flooded Canton in the 1960s, helping to register African-American voters and to teach in Freedom Schools, institutions that supplemented the learning of those who received inadequate educations in segregated schools. In 1963, the rally and march of African-Americans intent on receiving voting rights became known as the Freedom Days. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) set up a headquarters—the Freedom House—that was bombed by white supremacists that same year, which escalated to the point of a 14-year-old boy, Hubert Orsby, being murdered on September 10, 1964. Witnesses claimed to have seen a white man forcing Orsby, who was wearing a CORE T-shirt, into his truck at gunpoint.
Glendora. Glendora houses the Tallahatchie River, where Emmett Till’s body was disposed. Today, the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center stands to commemorate Till’s life and death. The museum is located in the building where the materials used to sink Till’s body were taken from. Visitors can take a bus tour of the Till Trail of Terror, which stops at various locations throughout Glendora and Money that are prevalent to the Till murder. Additionally, the original bridge near where Till’s body was discovered has since collapsed, but a new concrete bridge stands in its place, demarcated by a sign that was vandalized in 2016. It has since been replaced.
Jackson. Medgar Evers was the first NAACP field secretary for Mississippi. He helped organize boycotts and voter registration drives, as well as plan sit-ins at the Jackson Public Library. Evers was assassinated by a Ku Klux Klan member in 1963 on the same day President Kennedy delivered his civil rights address. Evers’s home is a National Historic Landmark, and the city of Jackson is home to a statue that honors him.
Other protestors included the Freedom Riders, who boarded buses in Montgomery that were bound for Jackson. Riders were not attacked upon arriving, but they were arrested shortly afterward when they attempted to use white-only facilities. This prompted their strategy to evolve: future protest rides departed from Montgomery to head into Jackson strictly under the knowledge that riders would be arrested. The arrestees overfilled Jackson prisons, leading to transfers to the Mississippi State Penitentiary. The legacy of these riders is upheld in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
Money. In August 1955, Emmett Till entered Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market (site pictured below), where he was accused of whistling at a white woman. Following this incident, two white men abducted, tortured and murdered Till and disposed of his body in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s murder became a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, and today, his memory is preserved with historical markers at the sites in Money associated with his murder.
Oxford. In 1961, James Meredith, an African-American, applied to the University of Mississippi, but he was rejected twice. U.S. Attorney Gen. Robert F. Kennedy called for 500 U.S. marshals to escort Meredith to reapply for a third time. Once the police presence was removed on September 29, 1962, a riot broke out on campus that required calling in the National Guard and federal troops to regain control. Despite the violence—which included two fatalities and many other injuries—Meredith became the first African-American to enroll at the University of Mississippi. He graduated a year later with a degree in political science. Only one building of the original five that made up the University of Mississippi still stands today. The Lyceum, part of the Circle Historic District, is preserved with a marker and statue of James Meredith.
Philadelphia. In 1964, two dozen Klansmen descended upon the Mount Zion Methodist Church in an attempt to find Michael Schwerner. When he proved not to be there, they beat several members of the church and burned it down. These actions brought Schwerner—alongside Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, members of CORE—home to Philadelphia. After the three men visited the remains of the Mount Zion Methodist Church, they were stopped by Klansman and county deputy sheriff Cecil Price, who threw them into the Neshoba County Jail under suspicion of arson. Upon their release, they were pursued by Price and other KKK members, who shot them at close range and burned their bodies in a dam near the church’s ruins. The disappearance of the three men spurred an FBI investigation that led to the indictment of 19 men, including Price. On October 27, 1967, an all-white jury found Price and six others guilty, acquitted nine, and came to a deadlock on the remaining three. None of the accused spent more than six years in prison. This case marked the first time anyone in the state was convicted of civil rights violations. In 2005, 41 years later, 79-year-old Edgar Ray Killen—a former Klansman and preacher—was charged on three counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years in prison. Killen, the last person serving time for a civil rights-era death, died at 92 years of age in 2018. Tourists can visit the location of the murders, the site where the Mount Zion Methodist Church once stood, the Neshoba County Jail and the courthouse where Killen was convicted in 2005.
Ruleville. Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer was born in Montgomery in 1917, the youngest of 20 children. As a child, she toiled in the fields with her sharecropper parents. She was never formally educated, but she was bright and frequently found herself in leadership roles. She was best known for her voice, which she would use to sing uplifting songs that spoke to a community oppressed by racism. She was part of a group that traveled to Indianola to register as a voter; upon her return home, she was driven out, threatened, beaten, arrested and shot at. Despite this, she became a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that helped to organize the 1964 Freedom Summer African-American voter registration campaign. A statue of Hamer stands in Ruleville.
Sumner. The Tallahatchie County Courthouse lies in Sumner, where R. Bryant and J.W. Milam were tried and acquitted of Till’s murder. The courthouse has been rehabilitated into a memorial and educational site, priding itself on its use of storytelling and art to generate a social and cultural discussion. One-hour guided tours are available at $5 per visitor. Additional 15-minute mobile app-guided tours (through use of the Till Memory Project app) of the courthouse are available for free.
Clinton. After Brown v. the Board of Education, on August 26, 1956, a group of African-Americans attended their first day of class, marking the start of integration of public high schools in the South. These students would come to be known as the Clinton 12. Desegregation quickly turned to tumult as protestors crowded outside the school, leading to violent riots. Tennessee Gov. Frank G. Clement became the first official to call the National Guard in to deal with the fallout of the Civil Rights Movement. On May 17, 1957, Clinton High School saw its first African-American graduate. A year later, the campus was bombed, though local citizens helped to rebuild the institution. Today, 12 life-sized statues of the Clinton 12 stand in front of the Green McAdoo Cultural Center.
Memphis. The evening before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, he delivered his “I’ve Been to a Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ. In it, he eerily predicted the possibility of his own death, but all the while he remained fearless. The following day, as Dr. King stood on the Lorraine Motel’s balcony outside room 306, he was assassinated. Across from the Lorraine Motel is the Legacy Building, where his assassin purportedly fired at him. Today, the Lorraine Motel is part of the National Civil Rights Museum. It houses a timeline for the movement as it spans between 1619 to 1968, features 260 artifacts and hosts more than 40 interactive oral history stations.
Nashville. Nashville students saw the implementation of lunch counter sit-ins as a means of peacefully protesting, though they were often met with hatred and violence. Diane Nash was the head of the Nashville Student Movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, where she urged other students to take part in rides across the South. On May 17, 1961, she was among a group of 10 students who rode to Birmingham, where they were arrested and taken to the Tennessee state line and abandoned. Tourists can visit the college Nash attended: Fisk University, the first accredited African-American institution and the center of the Nashville Student Movement. Multiple private tours are available on campus.
Berea. Berea College, the South’s first interracial and coeducational college, was founded in 1855 by abolitionists. Their admissions were open to everyone, regardless of race, class or gender, until 1904, when the Kentucky General Assembly passed the Day Law, which prohibited interracial education in private institutions. When Berea failed in fighting this law at the Supreme Court level, they took to paying for African-Americans to receive an education at all-black colleges instead. The Lincoln Institute was established nearby as well, which offered vocational education to black students. Altogether, more than 50 students from Berea joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, while others marched on the Capitol building in Frankfurt, staged sit-ins and founded the Black Student Union. Many prominent civil rights leaders have academic roots at Berea College, including Carter G. Woodson, who coined Negro History Week in 1926, which has expanded since to Black History Month. Lincoln Hall is still an active academic building at Berea College.
Louisville. In 1960, a group of blacks and whites met with Mayor Bruce Hoblitzell to press him to end segregation in white-owned establishments. Mayor Hoblitzell dismissed this request, prompting Louisville’s sit-in movement. While local businesses felt the pressure of this protesting, city officials remained unresponsive to the call for equality. In mid-1961, activists began campaigning to elect a new mayor and board of alderman. Upon their success, on May 1, 1963, the public accommodations ordinance was passed. The Louisville Downtown Civil Rights Trail is indicated by a series of historic markers throughout downtown that commemorate this movement.
Simpsonville. Whitney M. Young Jr. transformed the National Urban League into an aggressive civil rights organization that fought to end employment discrimination in the South. Young served as the president of the Urban League’s Omaha branch, as well as the dean of the School of Social Work at Atlanta University. At 40, he was named president of the National Urban League, where he oversaw its expansion from 38 employees to more than 1,600. President Lyndon B. Johnson honored Young with the Medal of Freedom in 1968. The two-story home where Young lived as a young man has been rehabilitated into a museum and is open for tours.
All photos courtesy of United States Civil Rights Trail, except for Harry S. Truman Library and Museum by Erin from Flickr Creative Commons.
Part two of our Civil Rights Trail series will publish in September and cover the eastern states along the trail.