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US Civil Rights Heritage Aimed as Tourist Draw

  • Chris Simkins

In the U.S. South, some communities are trying to capitalize on histories linked to the civil rights movement. They’re embracing sometimes-painful memories to educate visitors and lure tourist dollars.

In Atlanta, Georgia, former Mayor Shirley Franklin cherishes the personal letters of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., housed at the city's newest civil rights landmark.

"I think that gives people a much fuller understanding of who he was and what influenced him," she said of the collection.

Franklin spearheaded efforts to secure King's papers and build the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which opened in June 2014.

"I thought it would be a success, because I thought we were filling a gap in American history and certainly Atlanta history,” she said. “It is certainly very hard to find this much about civil rights in one place in Atlanta."

More than 1 million people visit civil rights attractions in Atlanta, one of many U.S. communities that are embracing the dark chapters of their past.

Andrew Young, another former mayor, was prominent in the civil rights movement and worked with King. He called Atlanta “one of the leading cities for civil rights tourism. I mean, that is our civil rights legacy."

Each month, thousands visit Atlanta – the site of many civil rights battles from at least 50 years ago – to see dozens of historic sites. Among them are Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both King and his father served as pastors, the home in which MLK Jr. was born, and the King Center, established by the leader’s family.

Alabama highlights history

In neighboring Alabama, communities from the capital, Montgomery, to Birmingham, Selma and Tuskegee are trying to capitalize on their civil rights history.

"Alabama recognizes that civil rights is an engine for economic growth and development, said Fred Gray, an activist. “We need to preserve that history.”

In 1960, Gray argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, successfully showing that electoral district boundaries of Macon County, Georgia, violated the Constitution by deliberately disenfranchising black voters. He also obtained the court order for the second of three related marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

Gray founded the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center in 1997 to showcase "triumphs and tragedies," as its website says.

The city is home to Tuskegee University, linked to an infamous clinical study – conducted from 1932 to 1972 – in which it collaborated with the U.S. Public Health Service to determine the impact of untreated syphilis. The study enrolled 600 impoverished sharecroppers, who were given free medical care, meals and burial insurance for their participation. Of them, 399 had the disease. But, even after penicillin was proved effective in treating the sexually transmitted disease in the 1940s, researchers intentionally failed to provide it to the study’s subjects. In 1997, then-President Bill Clinton formally apologized for the government’s actions at a White House ceremony for surviving study participants.

Sites tap emotions

For tourists, visiting civil rights sites can be an emotional experience.

"You can feel the effort and the empowerment, the effect that [civil rights activists] fought here,” said one young man visiting Selma in spring to mark the 50th anniversary of a march that became a turning point in the civil rights movement.

On March 7, 1965, state troopers and other law enforcement personnel used tear gas and billy clubs as on some 600 unarmed marchers set out from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights. The day became known as Bloody Sunday.

"You can just feel all the emotions and feelings," the young man said.

"So many people want to know, so many people need to know, our children need to know their history in order to go forward," said Gloria Cowan, another tourist visiting the site.

Back in Atlanta, plans are already underway to expand the Civil Rights Center and develop more programs for young people.

"A lot of these events took place before they came of age politically,” said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University professor of political science. “… It is important to have that legacy preserved for posterity. "