Accessibility links

US Civil Rights Movement Boosts Tourism

February is African-American History month: a chance for people of all races to remember or learn about events that shaped the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The growing interest in the civil rights movement is boosting tourism in communities where it took place.

The U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a painful chapter in American history that attracted world-wide attention. Millions of African-Americans took part in marches and non-violent protests for equal rights and justice. For Blacks, the civil rights struggle did not come without sacrifices. Throughout southern U.S. states, racial segregation, hatred, and violence was a way of life.

Now more than 40 years later, despite the painful memories of the past, there's been a surge of interest in the history of the civil rights movement. No community in the country has done more to promote civil rights tourism than Atlanta, Georgia.

"It is important that we share the lessons that we learn because I think that the rest of the world can be changed without violence, says Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta. "There can be justice and freedom established."

Mr. Young was one of Dr. King's most trusted aides. As church ministers, the two organized and led hundreds of marches and protests during the 1960s. Mr. Young says Atlanta has generated millions of dollars from civil rights tourism capitalizing on its reputation as the birthplace of the movement.

"I think as people come through here and begin to see how ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they work together in the power of God," said Mr. Young.

The biggest tourist attraction in Atlanta is the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. Located in a downtown neighborhood along Auburn Avenue, the area was established to preserve, protect and tell the story of where Dr. King was born, where he worked, worshiped and is buried. It's the third most visited place among America's 77 national historic sites. People from across the country and around the world come here to discover more about the civil rights leader and the movement he led.

"Remembering the March on Washington in 1963 was some kind of an awaking for me I guess back then and when we talked about coming down here to Atlanta we said we had to see this place," said Bill Swanson, who was visiting from Ohio.

Janet Langston and her boyfriend, Thomas, visited Atlanta from Memphis, Tennessee. They were not even born during the civil rights movement but wanted to walk the same path Dr. King did years ago.

"I think it is a good thing to have a place like this so people can come and visit from all walks of life so people can get different views maybe from what they heard in school or maybe did not hear anything at all in school, to learn facts, to maybe know a little bit more about Martin Luther King's family and know where he came from and his views,” said Janet.

Last year, 666,000 tourists visited the King site, a 60 percent increase since 1999. Many people want to see the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King was pastor and held many civil rights strategy sessions. It was also the place where tens of thousands gathered for his funeral in 1968. Dr. King was assassinated a week earlier in Memphis, Tennessee.

Earl Jenkins who grew up in the Atlanta neighborhood around the King site says it's a national treasure.

"I think people from all over the world, all nationalities should come to Auburn Avenue just to see where Dr. King got started and learn about what he lived for and died for," said Mr. Jenkins.

This is the King Visitors Center, a place developed by the U-S Park Service where tourists can learn about Dr. King's legacy and view exhibits illustrating the struggles African-Americans endured for equal rights.

Frank Catroppa, who runs the King Historic Site, says people want to feel and touch the places that changed the lives of so many.

"I think people want to know the stories. A lot of people would tell us in the past well do not dredge up that, it's all old we are moving along now but it is important to tell those stories. Primarily sites and museums are attracting more and more visitors because most people are getting their knowledge of the history of this country from the museums and national historic sites. And while our exhibits are special and tell a great story there is nothing like being in the sense of place like the birth home and the church," said Mr. Catroppa.

The increase in civil rights tourism here has helped revitalize this historically-black neighborhood after years of neglect and economic decline. Now this area known as Sweet Auburn, lined with churches and black-owned businesses, is being fixed up. There are housing renovations and new business moving into the place once called the richest Negro street in the world.

"People who come on these historic tours they actually spend more time and more money in the cities than people who are coming to a baseball game or going to the Super Bowl. They bring their families and they spend a lot of time so a site like this has had a tremendous economic impact and will continue to have an economic impact," says Mr. Catroppa.

Now other cities across the south have built or are building new civil rights museums and memorials to cash in on the interest in civil rights history and the tourism dollars it is generating.