Birmingham. Little Rock. Topeka. America’s civil rights history-changing events played out in cities like these. Now a new book reveals lesser-known aspects of that movement’s complex past. Author Lee Sentell hopes his book, The Official U.S. Civil Rights Trail: What Happened Here Changed the World, will make understanding the era easier—and pass its important legacy on to younger generations.
The U.S. Civil Rights Trail winds through 15 states, mostly in the South. It includes more than 120 sites, such as churches, schools, courthouses, and museums. All are places where activists fought to advance social justice and racial equality in the 1950s and ’60s.
Sentell’s book is a companion to the trail itself. The book features a timeline of events from 1954-1969 and delves into the history of the trail’s civil rights landmarks. It includes images of the locations today, as well as photographs from the civil rights era. Sentell wants “people to understand things about civil rights that they didn’t know before” after reading his book.
Much of the history of the civil rights movement is difficult to face. From a church bombing in Alabama to a landmark court case in Kansas, there are heartbreaking stories of segregation, prejudice, and injustice. There are also horrific stories of burnings and lynchings. Throughout, it is good to remember to “abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” (Romans 12:9)
The book tells stories of brave leaders too. Bernice King, daughter of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., told Sentell “how concerned she was that young African Americans did not know the story about what her father and people’s parents and grandparents went through in the ’50s and the ’60s in order to leave a better world for their children and grandchildren.”
One of Sentell’s goals for his book was sharing details that some folks may never have heard. For example, he says the words “I have a dream” didn’t appear in Dr. King’s prepared text for the famous 1963 speech. But as King spoke, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson noticed restlessness in the crowd. She remembered a speech King had given in Detroit and called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.” Dr. King went off-script and delivered the now-familiar “I have a dream” refrain.
Bernice King hopes families will “bring their children to these historical sites to learn the stories of brave, courageous, visionary, non-violent individuals who changed the South forever.” Further, she desires that young people be inspired to make changes to the world around them. She says, “People don’t know the story. If you don’t know the story, then you don’t care.”
A Time For Caution
The history of the civil rights era includes The Negro Motorist Green Book. Shamefully, black travelers in the United States often couldn’t find safe places to eat or sleep due to “whites only” policies. Weary of discrimination, New York City postal carrier and World War I veteran Victor Hugo Green came up with the idea for a guide. He compiled a list of places where black people would be welcome.
For nearly 30 years, the Green Book listed restaurants, hotels, barbers, and clubs where its readers could avoid problems because of their skin color. The guide’s cover contained this warning: “Carry your Green Book with you—You may need it.”
The opening paragraphs of the 1948 edition suggest the disgraceful state of the times but held to the same hope that Dr. King proclaimed in his “I have a dream” speech: “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”
In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. It outlawed discrimination based on race or skin color. But it took years for much of the new law’s intentions to be realized throughout the culture.
Green died in 1960. He did not get to witness the day when his book was no longer needed. His wife, Alma, continued with its publication for several years. The last issue of the book was the 1966-67 edition.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. — Psalm 4:8