Civil Rights Sites Honor Struggles for Freedom
By Victor Block
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 can relive that chapter of history and learn the story of African slaves who lived and toiled at the plantation. This is one of numerous sites around the country that 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.
Churches have played a major role in the Black civil rights movement. They long have been significant in the struggle for equality and at times the sites of violence. At the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a clock is frozen at 10:22. That was the time on Sept. 15, 1963, when a bomb exploded, killing four Black girls between the ages of 11 and 14.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 is also open for tours.
Probably the most famous 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 cannot 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 that, 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 and Culture in Washington, D.C., 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 such as Louis Armstrong's trumpet paint a positive picture, while others -- iron collars from slave ships and a rope used in a lynching -- are important but 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. The Medgar Evers Home Museum in the same city honors the civil rights leader who in 1963 was assassinated in his own driveway. He was returning home from a meeting carrying T-shirts that read "Jim Crow Must Go."