Senator Barack Obama's historical candidacy for the President of the United States has refocused attention on the issue of diversity in America and the dramatic changes that have occurred in our society during the past 30-40 years. His campaign inspired Americans to engage in new discussions of race and its role in our ever changing society. But perhaps the most remarkable scene occurred in Grant Park during his acceptance speech where the faces of the crowd perfectly portrayed the new American diversity that has emerged in our country. Obama's message of unity has drawn support from men and women of all ages, races, and religious beliefs.
Our nation has come a long way from the intense struggles for racial equality that took place during the 1950's and 60's. The segregated society of that era lead to the bus boycott in Montgomery that thrust Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. into national prominence, as well as the student sit-ins and freedom rides and the growth of grassroots organizations centered around educational equality and voting rights for black Americans.
Many black historians are concerned that the facts of the civil rights struggle are at risk of being forgotten. They feel the story needs to be retold - particularly now that we have elected the first African-American President of the United States.
Fortunately, much of the history of that era has been preserved in countless cities throughout the South and along the many stops of the "Modern Civil Rights Trail." Today, Americans of all ages and ethnicities can be relive those days told through a variety of educational themes by visiting the museums, parks and preserved sites that were the epicenter of the modern civil rights movement.
More importantly, social studies teachers can take their classroom on the road and study the modern civil rights movement by traveling to Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery, Alabama, and Memphis, Tennessee. They can begin the journey with a stop in Birmingham, Alabama and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. There the students can "take a walk through history." This state-of-the-art facility is designed to be a self-directed journey through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. The museum features photography and audio recordings from the era, multi-media presentations, and dramatic life-size figures.
Next, students can tour the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where the deadliest moment in the civil rights era occurred. Just days after a six-year battle ended in favor of integrating the Birmingham schools, the church was bombed by Klansmen. Four young girls preparing for Sunday school in the basement were killed. Across the street from the church is Kelly Ingram Park where civil rights activists gathered in the spring of 1963 to march to City hall to oppose racial discrimination.
The next stop on the tour is Montgomery, AL, often referred to as the "Birthplace of Civil Rights." Montgomery is home to the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. This is the only church where Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor. Visitors to the church will be enthralled by the large mural depicting the struggles of the movement and landmark moments in Dr. King's life.
Located just a block south of the church is the Civil Rights Memorial Center. Designed by international artist Maya Lin, the center honors 40 individuals who died between 1954 and 1968. In front of the museum is a black granite table with the names of the martyrs, chronicling the history of the movement in lines that radiate like the hands of a clock. Water emerges from the table's center and flows evenly across the top. On a curved black granite wall behind the table is engraved - "We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down the waters and righteousness like a mighty stream" Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s well-known paraphrase of Amos 5:24.
The next stop along the civil rights trail is Selma, Al and the beginning of the National Historic Selma-to-Montgomery Trail. Student groups can tour the National Voting Rights Museum and walk across The Edmond Pettus Bridge. The National Voting Rights Museum showcases items from the voting rights movement and the Edmond Pettus Bridge is the site of one of the most famous events in the civil rights movement - "Bloody Sunday," where 600 peaceful protesters where attacked by mounted deputies and state troopers.
The Lowndes County Interpretive Center is the midpoint of the Selma to Montgomery March. Student visitors can relive the events that occurred during the march including the "Tent City" exhibit and artifacts from that era.
The final location on the civil rights trail is Memphis, Tennessee. Students can begin their tour at the National Civil Rights Museum located at the original Lorraine Motel, site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1968 assassination. The museum presents the history of the American Civil Rights Movement and includes a reconstruction of the events leading up to that fateful day in 1968.
The Slavehaven Underground Museum is located just minutes from the museum. The original owner, Jacob Burkle, used the home as a way station for slaves escaping to the North on the Underground Railroad. Visitors can see startling displays of auctions, advertisements, and personal artifacts depicting the lives and experiences of slaves in the antebellum South.
As you can see, there has never been a better time in America to revisit history and gain a perspective on the amazing journey Americans have traveled from the segregated society and tumultuous events in the 1950's and 60's to the united America of 2008 and the historic election of a United States President of African American decent.
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