Travel

See the Southeast through the eyes of a civil rights leader

Where can you go to see where civil rights history was made? The list is long; the map is wide.

So we spoke with Ahmad Daniels of Charlotte, who heads an educational group whose programs include trips to civil rights destinations, primarily in the Southeast.

Daniels, 59, has lived in Charlotte since 1979 and has been involved in civil and human rights causes since 1967.

As a representative of a nongovernment organization, he attended the U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. Daniels is founder and executive director of Creative Interchange, a nonprofit whose mission is community and personal development.

The next trip he's leading – Aug. 16-17 – is a Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Tour, a motorcoach to Alabama with stops in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma.

Here are his insights on civil rights sites covered in that trip and elsewhere in the region.

Most moving place: “The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. On Sept. 15, 1963, four children were killed by a bomb that exploded near the sanctuary. The tragedy was a major turning point in the civil rights protests in Birmingham and became a rallying cry for unity throughout the country.

“The church has the same shape – it's a two-story structure and is still a working church. It now has a stained-glass window given by the people of Wales that shows a black Jesus. In the basement is a tribute to the little girls who were killed in the blast, and includes their pictures. A tour of the church also includes the viewing of a documentary that provides an understanding of the events that led up to the bombing, which occurred a few weeks before the famous March on Washington.”

Most worthwhile site that may be the hardest to find: “The Hope Street Baptist Church, in Montgomery. It's an older building and still operating as a church. The thing is, it's not as well-known as other locations in Montgomery, like the Rosa Parks bus boycott site, where she boarded a bus, was asked to give up her seat and refused. Many people don't often see the Hope Street church on a civil rights tour.

“This is the site where the 1955 meeting was held to decide how long the community would abstain from riding buses – and more than 5,000 people attended that meeting.

“Markers there give visitors an understanding of its importance. And the site stresses promise: If you have a stick-to-it attitude and persevere, you can have success at the end of the day.”

Most unchanged over the years: “The National Voting Rights Museum, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma. It's where civil-rights workers were beaten and chased on March 7, 1965 – and the bridge still looks like it did then. The museum has pictures that were taken that day by the federal government, so you can literally look back over the decades.

“Whenever I'm there, there's always someone on the bridge who was there on that day long ago. And from that person, you can hear an accounting of what happened that day now called ‘Bloody Sunday.'

“I and others get an eerie feeling at the bridge. When you walk across it, you know that your footsteps are placed exactly where the footsteps were of the people who marched that on that day long ago.”

Most changed over the years: “One would probably have to be the King Center in Atlanta: It wasn't there until after he was assassinated. The church that he and his father both pastored is still there, but another church has been built across the street from it, and it's the new church that is used now to accommodate the congregation, which has grown considerably.”

Most somber/contemplative civil rights site: “The Viola Liuzzo historical marker, on U.S. 80, between Lowndesboro and White Hall, in Alabama. The oval-shaped marker honors one of several Freedom Riders killed there by Klansman on March 25, 1965. The memorial was put up by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference women and reads, ‘In Memory of Our Sister': This acknowledges the contribution of women who sacrificed so much. The fact that she was not black adds to the humanity of the civil-rights movement – it's not just for black people. It's for all justice-loving people.”

Most surprising site: “Kelly Ingram Park, in Birmingham, across from the 16th Street Baptist Church. The park is where women and children demonstrators had police dogs sicced on them in 1963. What they've done with the park is made it a Freedom Walk. As you walk, you encounter different statues and markers. There's a wonderful statue of children standing behind cell bars, and the inscription says, ‘I'm not afraid of your jail.' It reminds me of how well-focused and active the youth were. They had a sense of purpose and direction – not this ‘me me me' self-aggrandization we too often find now. The kids from the early '60s who are recognized at the park realized they were part of a community.”

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