Charting America’s path to freedom on a road trip through the Deep South

Charting America’s path to freedom on a road trip through the Deep South

I’m sitting at the lunch counter of an American diner in the Deep South, eyes closed, lost in my thoughts of a time harking back to the Sixties.

Suddenly, I hear voices behind me, taunting, menacing, spitting racist abuse and threatening words, and soon I feel surrounded – the vibration of a growing hostile mob rippling through the steel shaft of my seat.

Taking off my headphones, I’ve just felt what it must have been like to be a black person at one of the many sit-ins staged by civil rights campaigners fighting for desegregation and the right to vote, little more than 50 years ago.

The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta offers an interactive experience (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta offers an interactive experience (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

It’s one of many interactive experiences in the Center For Civil And Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, at the start of a road trip that will take me nearly 800 miles over four states from Martin Luther King Jr’s birthplace in Atlanta, across Alabama and Mississippi, to the now infamous Lorraine Motel where he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.

It’s a ‘lest we forget’ journey with my 19-year-old daughter, Grace, an educational swansong before she flies the nest, and because the civil rights veterans – many of whom are in their 70s and work in the museums on our route – all have stories to tell, but aren’t going to be around forever.

The US Civil Rights Trail (civilrightstrail.com), which opened officially last year, stretches more than 100 locations across 15 states, from Kansas across to Washington in the east and down to Florida.

Brent’s Drugs provides a movie setting (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Brent’s Drugs provides a movie setting (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

Movies provide a nod to the places we’re visiting; we’ll enjoy ice cream sodas in Brent’s Drugs, the Jackson, Mississippi diner where Emma Stone sat in The Help, and walk the Edmund Pettus Bridge, featured in the film Selma.

Of course, there’s heavy emphasis on civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, the Christian minister inspired by Gandhi, whose non-violent campaign for voting rights and desegregation led to major law changes.

Hannah and Grace outside Martin Luther King’s birthplace in Atlanta (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Hannah and Grace outside Martin Luther King’s birthplace in Atlanta (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

Tourists flock to his birthplace at 501 Auburn Avenue and his final resting place in a tomb alongside his widow Coretta Scott King in Atlanta.

MLK statues and plaques, old TV footage and ‘I’ve reached the mountaintop’ words of wisdom are prevalent in many landmarks along the trail.

But markers also pay tribute to lesser-known individuals who sacrificed so much for the cause.

Byron Powell, a genial 75-year-old African American guide at the museum, was training to be a combat pilot with the US Air Force when he ventured outside the base in Atlanta to a laundromat to do his washing, failing to see the ‘Whites Only’ sign.

Victim of segregation Byron Powell (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Victim of segregation Byron Powell (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

“Two police officers came in and pointed a gun at my head and told me that if I didn’t get back to base now, I wouldn’t get back at all. It’s strange to think that I did three tours of Vietnam, but I was closer to death in that laundromat in Georgia.”

Our next two stops take us to the most important cities for civil rights in Alabama: Birmingham and Montgomery, both ‘Jim Crow’ segregation hotspots.

Birmingham, once deemed by King to be the most segregated city in the US, was nicknamed ‘Bombingham’ in the Fifties due to the high amount of racially-motivated bombings.

Martin Luther King statue in Kelly Ingram Park (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Martin Luther King statue in Kelly Ingram Park (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

Today, in the sunshine, it’s hard to envisage the leafy, tranquil Kelly Ingram Park as a bloody battlefield in the spring of 1963, when peaceful student civil rights protesters were set upon by police dogs and blasted with blistering fire hoses whose water pressure could shear the hair from your head.

Months later, in a devastating attack on September 15, 1963 which shocked the country, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the basement of the adjacent 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four little girls changing into their choir robes for a youth day service.

Standing like a beacon in the park is a bronze memorial, entitled Four Spirits, depicting the four girls, the youngest releasing doves into the air as a symbol of hope for peace.

Memorial to the four little girls who died at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Memorial to the four little girls who died at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

Some 80 miles south in Montgomery, the state capital of Alabama, we see the plaque – and eponymous museum – where seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat to whites on a city bus in 1955.

This led to a 13-month boycott of city buses by black people, led by King, then pastor of the Dexter Avenue Church nearby.

Rosa Parks marker and museum (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Rosa Parks marker and museum (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

The bus company lost up to 40,000 fares each day, while shoe repairers’ businesses soared. The movement won the battle, its first major victory, as the US Supreme Court ruled Alabama’s bus segregation laws unconstitutional.

Of course, Montgomery is synonymous with Selma, 54 miles away, the scene of a major civil rights march in 1965, when 600 peaceful protesters were attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by hostile state troopers with tear gas and billy clubs (truncheons), some of whom were on horseback.

Hannah on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Hannah on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

Our guide Dianne Harris was a 15-year-old student standing at the back of the line with her brother as the violence erupted, and fled to the nearby Brown Chapel AME Church, now an historic landmark.

She leads us into the church, a safe haven when smoke and violence were all around, and after a quiet reflection breaks into one of the many freedom songs which kept those marchers strong: ‘Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round, Turn me round, turn me round … Walkin’ into Freedom Land’.

Dianne Harris was a student on the Selma to Montgomery march (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Dianne Harris was a student on the Selma to Montgomery march (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

Crossing into Mississippi, the poorest state in the US with one of the most notoriously violent records of racism, we drive through the delta, the empty road slicing through powder puffs of white cotton fields where cotton pickers once slaved.

Despite federal laws which banned segregation and gave African Americans voting rights, Mississippians frequently ignored them. Lynchings still took place long after desegregation laws were passed.

Mississippi cotton fields (iStock/PA)
Mississippi cotton fields (iStock/PA)

But the state is acknowledging its past, opening two fantastic museums in 2017 in Jackson side by side: the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum (the only state-funded civil rights museum in the country) and the Museum of Mississippi History.

Our last stop is Memphis, Tennessee, a lively hub of blues and barbecue, with its bedazzling neon vibe and juke joints of Beale Street, Elvis’s Graceland in all its tacky glory south of the city, and the once unremarkable Lorraine Motel, now a sombre reminder of where King was shot on the balcony of Room 306 by James Earl Ray.

The Sixties cars paint a picture of the time at the Lorraine Motel (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
The Sixties cars paint a picture of the time at the Lorraine Motel (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

The motel is now the National Civil Rights Museum, with a reconstruction of his hotel bedroom – the mustard carpet and beige bedspreads, full ashtrays, and the leftovers of a room service meal. It feels like an inauspicious end to a laudable life.

So, how far has the civil rights movement come?

Some feel that America has taken a huge step backwards with its current administration, that racism is now more subtle but still ever present, that we need to be vigilant if we are to move forward.

Hezekiah Watkins points to his picture in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Hezekiah Watkins points to his picture in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

Hezekiah Watkins, a Mississippi guide and civil rights campaigner who was arrested 109 times and once went to jail with King himself, concludes: “The key to moving forward together has to include learning from our past, no matter how difficult the task may be.”

How to plan your trip

America As You Like It (americaasyoulikeit.com020 8742 8299) offers a 14-night Civil Rights fly-drive from £1,672 per person, including flights from Heathrow to Atlanta and Memphis to Heathrow, car hire, two nights in Atlanta, two nights in Birmingham, two nights in Montgomery, two nights in Jackson, two nights in Cleveland, two nights in Clarksdale and two nights in Memphis. Price based on two people sharing, some breakfasts included.

For details of civil rights trails, visit Deep South USA (deep-south-usa.com/civilrights) and civilrightstrail.com. For information on individual states, visit exploregeorgia.org; alabama.travel; tnvacation.com and visitmississippi.org.

Car hire in the USA with Hertz (hertz.co.uk) starts from £23 a day. Explore the ‘Road To Civil Rights’ with Hertz Road Trip Planner route on hertz.com/usaroadtripplanner.

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