Southern cities epicenter of civil rights history, flanked by Topeka and D.C.

U.S. civil rights trail book shines light on battles to dismantle Jim Crow laws

By: - August 2, 2021 8:53 am

Lee Sentell, director of tourism in Alabama and author of “Civil Rights Trail,” walks through 14 pivotal landmarks of America’s fight in the 1950s and 1960s to erode Jim Crow laws, including the Brown v. Board of Education national historic site and Sumner Elementary School in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The roadmap of America’s struggle for civil rights runs through southern hotspots of Selma, Memphis, Jackson, Little Rock, Montgomery, Greensboro and Birmingham while extending to the western outpost of Topeka and northern crossroads of Washington, D.C.

The collage of sit-ins, protest marches, violent assaults, school walkouts, freedom rides and legal battles of the 1950s and 1960s are staples of the movement to vanquish Jim Crow segregation. Historic sacrifices made by Black activists for voting rights, educational opportunity and workplace fairness are preserved in schools, courthouses, homes, churches and other landmarks that constitute the U.S. civil rights trail and fill pages of a new book capturing those scars and monuments of freedom.

“Civil Rights Trail” authored by Lee Sentell includes the Brown v. Board of Education national historic site and Sumner Elementary School in Topeka as landmarks in the nation’s quest for an end to racial segregation. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Lee Sentell, author of the 128-page “Civil Rights Trail” and director of the Alabama tourism agency, said in a Kansas Reflector interview the project was designed to offer people a sample of the volatile past so they would be motivated to visit in the present.

The Black Lives Matter protests of lethal methods of law enforcement officers are reflective of that era and help connect Americans and international visitors to the civil rights trail, Sentell said.

“We want to encourage people to go to these landmark sites to learn more about the stories of the people,” the author said. “Because, for the most part, the people in the civil rights movement were essentially volunteers who felt like they can’t put up with this any longer.”

He said any overview of the civil rights movement had to combine powerful visual images of the human cost of transformation found at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s the motel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated while in the city to support Black sanitation workers’ demands for fair wages.

“You sort of unexpectedly turn and you’re looking into the hotel room where Martin Luther King was staying. And, where he was shot, just outside that door. It is emotional,” Sentell said.


Brown v. Board of Education

He said the civil rights trail included Farmville, Virginia, where three-fourths of plaintiffs in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case were located. The Virginia chapter of that legal effort was sparked when Barbara Johns, 16, led students at her all-Black high school in a walkout during 1951. There was no library, science lab, gym, cafeteria or indoor restrooms in their school.

The U.S. Supreme Court eventually combined a cluster of school segregation cases into Brown v. Board of Education. In 1954, the high court overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” standard with a unanimous opinion invalidating racial segregation in public schools.

An educational display outside the Brown v. Board of Education national historic site in Topeka and a destination on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. (Submitted by Patricia E. Weems Gaston)

Sentell visited the Brown v. Board of Education site in Topeka for the first time last week, fulfilling a 50-year desire to visit the namesake city of the school segregation case.

“We had a little a little talk and a book signing,” Sentell said. “It’s powerful. Because, I mean, that is ground zero.”

He said the goal was to within two years affirm the Brown v. Board of Education building as a World Heritage Site, which would make it the first elementary school in the United States designated in that manner.

One signer of that unanimous school desegregation opinion, Justice Hugo Black, had attended the same Alabama church Sentell did in his youth. He met the justice shortly before his death in Washington, D.C.

Back on the trail, New Orleans honors Ruby Bridges, who at 6 years of age was the first Black student in that city to attend a previously all-white elementary school in 1960. Angry white parents jeered as federal officers escorted her to kindergarten, an event painted by Norman Rockwell. She sat alone with a teacher in a classroom boycotted by white students.

Washington, D.C., is an important stop on the civil rights trail, Sentell said, because it hosts the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which contains 36,000 artifacts of the African-American experience. The district also hosts the U.S. Supreme Court, which offered landmark civil rights decisions, and the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered the “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963.

The trail features Sumner, Mississippi, where 14-year-0ld Emmett Till was kidnapped and murdered by white supremacists in 1955. The all-white jury acquitted Roy Bryant and his brother J.W. Milam in the crime. The Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center is near Sumner.

The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was the site of a Ku Klux Klan bombing in 1963, which killed four young Black girls.


Evers, Parks and King

In Little Rock, Arkansas, the Central High School national historic site commemorates nine Black students who defied Gov. Orval Faubus in 1957 by seeking admission. President Dwight Eisenhower dispatched federal soldiers from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and federalized National Guard troops to guarantee safety of those children.

The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is in Jackson along with the home of Medgar Evers, the first NAACP field secretary in the state. He was responsible for voter registration drives and investigation of racially motivated murders. That work led to his assassination in 1963 by Byron De La Beckwith, who dropped a .30-06 rifle at the scene bearing his fingerprints. Beckwith was acquitted twice by all-white juries, but convicted of murder 30 years later and died in prison.

A detail of Michael Young’s Brown v. Board of Education mural in the Kansas Capitol depicting the nation’s struggle with “separate but equal” public schools. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

The International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, commemorates four Black college students who refused to leave a Woolworth’s “whites only” lunch counter after informed they wouldn’t be served. It helped spark the nonviolent sit-in movement. Comparable sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee, led the mayor to make it the first city in the South to desegregate lunch counters.

The trail also leads to Atlanta with the King Center, National Center for Civil and Human Rights and Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Montgomery, Alabama’s contributions to the trail feature the Rosa Parks Museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Freedom Ride Museum and the Civil Rights Memorial.

Sentell said he heard King speak during the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965. That march had been delayed when Alabama state troopers and local deputies beat more than 500 voting-rights activists on what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The assault stalled Black marchers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge who were attempting to reach the Capitol.

I heard Martin Luther King speak outside of Montgomery,” Sentell said. “It was exciting a couple of years ago, when President Obama came on the 50th anniversary of the date of Bloody Sunday. There were 45,000 people there. It was amazing.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.