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US Civil Rights History Spawns Tourism

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, Washington, D.C., Aug. 2011 (file photo).
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, Washington, D.C., Aug. 2011 (file photo).

February is Black History Month in the United States, when observances are held in tribute to people and events that shaped the history of African Americans.

Over the last two decades, interest in learning about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s - a painful but important chapter in U.S. history - has increased. As a result, several communities have built museums that serve as lasting tributes to the past.

In Birmingham, Alabama, a battleground in the struggle for African American equality, some are capitalizing on so-called heritage tourism.

It was in this very city where the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and others led peaceful demonstrations which turned violent when police used fire hoses and dogs against the demonstrators.

Many were wounded, thousands were arrested, and the images galvanized support for the bid to end racial discrimination.

Nearly 50 years later, people such as William Revill come, who traveled several hours to see to Birmingham's Civil Rights Institute, wants to learn about the battle for civil rights.

"Black people need to know the price that our people paid for us to be where we are today," he says. "It came with a price. Unfortunately what that price meant was that a lot of our people died."

Lawrence Pijeaux, president of the museum, shows the jail-cell door that once kept Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King behind bars.

"This is an extremely important artifact at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute," he says, explaining that it was behind this door that Dr. King wrote his famous "Letter From Birmingham Jail," considered by many one the most important document of the civil rights movement. "It's important that we have this institution here so that people not only in this country, but people from around the world, [can] learn about what happened in Birmingham."

Multimedia presentations, photographs and artifacts are used to document the African American struggle. For Ann Marie Wilson, visiting from London, the materials have the power to inform demonstrations against injustice that are unfolding in today's world.

"We have heard Alabama has been very significant in the integration process but also had a lot pain along its journey," she says. "I wanted to see what I could learn from that to see how peaceful demonstrations can enable a diverse population to live side by side in harmony."

"It kind of got emotional for me," says Vernon Roberts of New Jersey, for whom the exhibits stir powerful memories. "It gave me the opportunity to want to bring more of my family, especially to have my children here so they can see the struggle that took place here."

Last year, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute attracted thousands of visitors. The hope is that even more will come this year.