Experience the Personal Stories of the Civil Rights Movement

Sometimes, a story is worth a thousand pictures.

The civil rights movement was full of bravery, innovation and remarkable people who reshaped the history of the country. And while many museums and historic sites offer exhibits and galleries that tell those stories through artifacts and photographs, some go a step further with personal, oral histories shared by those who bravely navigated those turbulent times.

In special places throughout the South, participants in the civil rights movement can meet with groups to tell their own stories of courage. These intimate, authentic encounters immerse visitors in the history of the movement and demonstrate how the events of the past influenced the cultural, social, economic and political landscapes in which we live today.

Nashville Public Library, Special Collections - Photos by Gary Layda

The Civil Rights Room and Collection

Nashville, Tennessee

From voter registration drives to nonviolent sit-ins at segregated businesses and other campaigns, Nashville citizens have always united at the grassroots level of the civil rights movement.

It was there that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at historic Fisk University in 1960, the day after an estimated 5,000 people, primarily students, marched in silence to City Hall to protest the early morning bombing of the home of a local black councilman and attorney.

At the downtown branch of the Nashville Public Library, visitors will find the Civil Rights Room and Collection, a stunning state-of-the-art, multimedia assemblage of important Nashville places, personalities and events from the movement’s heyday. The library also offers a special speaker series called Civil Rights and a Civil Society: The Stories Behind the Room at the Nashville Public Library. There, tour groups can listen while local movement veterans share personal on-the-ground accounts of their integral roles in changing the narrative on race and inclusion in this country.

Among them is Ernest Rip Patton, a native of Nashville who was a music education major at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College, now Tennessee State University. In his oral histories, Patton recounts numerous social challenges he and his peers faced at the time.

“We were called colored people then, and colored people were accustomed to knowing they could go downtown but only do certain things,” he said. “I could go to different stores and do my shopping for clothes, but I could not try them on to see if they fit. At those stores that had lunch counters, I could not sit down and eat. I could spend money [downtown], but they did not have all of the amenities that whites had.”

Groups eagerly soak up Patton’s stories about his involvement in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, commonly known as SNCC — pronounced “snick” — an organization of young people actively assuming roles in civil rights movement leadership.

“We were taught about nonviolence by a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School that had been in India as a missionary studying under Gandhi,” he said. “Through him we were taught how to protect ourselves, how to go about demonstrating, what to do if you were hit or spat upon, or if somebody said something to you, and how not to fight back.”

Because of SNCC’s efforts, Nashville became the first city in the South to desegregate its lunch counters, popular gathering places found in many cities that were accessible only to whites.

Groups there can also explore the moving centerpiece: a circular table symbolic of the lunch counters that features a timeline peppered with over 100 significant civil rights milestones. There is also a special audio/video area that offers a variety of short civil-rights-themed documentary films.


Photo courtesy of St. Augustine Catholic Church

St. Augustine Catholic Church

New Orleans, LA

St. Augustine Catholic Church has been a respite and source of inspiration and community for freed people of color, slaves, white Creole, Haitian and French immigrant worshipers since its founding in 1841. The church’s location is key, as it is situated in the historic Faubourg Tremé, known not only as the oldest African-American neighborhood in the United States, but also as a place where free blacks were permitted to acquire, purchase and own real property years before the official end of slavery.

The church, which celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2016, is also recognized by some historians as the birthplace of the Southern civil rights movement. Today, many of the city’s local icons and their descendants proudly recount their experiences for tour groups and others who come in search of in-depth connections to this community’s rich history.

The church, which celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2016, is also recognized by some historians as the birthplace of the Southern civil rights movement. Today, many of the city’s local icons and their descendants proudly recount their experiences for tour groups and others who come in search of in-depth connections to this community’s rich history.

“In Shreveport, there was a Catholic school for blacks, but we did not have the same books, no certified teachers and not the same exposure as the white schools,” Brierre Aziz said. “So in my father’s fighting for education rights, by the time we finished elementary school we could filter into the all-girls Catholic high school and receive those same resources.”

After moving to New Orleans, where she has now lived for over 30 years, Brierre Aziz learned that despite the early integration of this neighborhood and the St. Augustine spiritual community, segregation still reigned. Among her stories is one she heard through descendants about a church member prohibited from sitting in the front of the sanctuary and relegated instead to the last two pews.

Monique Brierre Aziz is a Haitian immigrant and long-time parishioner. The stories she often shares are unique in that after coming to the United States as a child, she first lived in Shreveport, Louisiana, where her father, a doctor, worked tirelessly to help integrate the schools in the 1960s.

“When I talk to people on tours, I incorporate all that I can about some of the people who were active in the civil rights movement in New Orleans,” she said. This includes people like Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in 1896 for refusing to move from a railcar designated for whites only and A.P. Tureaud, a key legal activist working to end Jim Crow laws in Louisiana.

“It’s important to tell the stories you hear from ordinary people. Sometimes people say that these things didn’t really happen, but the stories are true and affected us. I love New Orleans, I love the history, and I want to share it with people.”


Photo courtesy of the Albany Convention and Visitors Bureau

Albany Civil Rights Institute and Old Mount Zion Baptist Church

Albany, GA

In southwest Georgia, one of the first and among the most influential battleground cities in the fight against segregation was Albany, where Martin Luther King Jr. not only honed his skills in front of capacity crowds, but also met and coordinated many activities of the movement with four major civil rights organizations: the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Assockation for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and SNCC. These entities often met at what is now the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and part of the Albany Civil Rights Institute.

In addition to visiting this state-of-the-art facility encompassing a wide array of visual, audio and digitally mastered exhibits, artifacts and memorabilia, groups can hear personal stories from leaders and activists from the civil rights era that still reside in the area. Among the most memorable retellings are those from the Freedom Singers.

Originally formed in 1962 to raise money for SNCC, the Freedom Singers had four founding members: Charles Neblett, Bernice Johnson, Cordell Hull Reagon and Rutha Harris. And like the Freedom Riders who traveled on interstate buses across the South to protest segregation, the Freedom Singers traveled extensively, driving over 50,000 miles and singing at churches, educational institutions, private homes and prominent events in 46 states.

Harris has since formed a new Freedom Singers group. On the second Saturday of every month, the group shares — in story and acapella song — the history of that turbulent time at Old Mount Zion Church.

“The music is what makes all the difference,” Harris said. “It’s a universal language; it calms the heart, calms your inner being and can calm any situation.”

To open the performance, the singers march in, picket signs in hand, circling the pews singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” one of the most well-known songs about protest and freedom. Others, such as “I Woke Up This Morning With My Mind on Freedom,” “I’m On My Way” and “The Buses Are A-Comin,’” also keep visitors spellbound.

“The movement was about using music to bring people together of all colors to do what God sent us to do,” Harris said.

One story she has shared with attendees is about a particularly frightening incident she had while driving through Alabama in the 1960s.

“We were in a brown compact Buick just big enough for the four of us, and we were shot at,” she said. “And the driver was the only person who couldn’t duck. We did some singing, and we did some praying.”

The performance is an interactive experience in that the Freedom Singers also invite and encourage the multicultural, multigenerational attendees to share their personal stories about race relations to encourage cross-cultural understanding and conversation.


Photo courtesy of the Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society

Missouri History Museum

St. Louis, MO

When talking about cities that played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement, St. Louis does not typically come to mind. But the city was part of several important civil rights events, and those stories come to life for visitors to the Missouri History Museum.

“That’s the biggest surprise to people, because they don’t think of St. Louis in that way,” said Tami Goldman, tourism and group sales manager. “I grew up in St. Louis, but I would say that at least 70 percent of the information about that time that we have here, I did not learn about in school. What we offer has national appeal and is just the tip of the iceberg of St. Louis stories.”

For example, what is known in some historical references as the first civil rights demonstration on the continent took place in St. Louis in 1819 when free blacks and ally whites protested the impeding admission of Missouri into the Union as a slave state.

This and other significant events relative to the city’s human rights struggles are well documented in Seeking St. Louis, Currents and Reflections, one of the museum’s core galleries. Tour groups can also request a special Show and Tell in the library and research facility, where in an intimate, behind-the-scenes setting, they will have an exclusive opportunity to explore many artifacts and items of memorabilia not on display to the public, and to engage in a question-and-answer session with museum curators.

Now through April 15, 2018, groups can also enjoy a special exhibit titled “No. 1 in Civil Rights: The African-American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis.” The exhibit offers a significant narrative of ground-level activism, including four precedent-setting civil rights Supreme Court cases tried there: Dred Scott v. Stanford in 1857, Gaines v. Canada in 1938, Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948, and Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. in 1968. The experience is coupled with live, interactive performances from Missouri History Museum Activists who portray researched, true-to-life figures recounting the St. Louis African-American struggle for freedom.

“The exhibit also does a comparison to aspects of the fight for equality from the 1800s, through the actual civil rights movement to today, with the riots that happened most recently in East St. Louis and Ferguson,” Goldman said. “A lot of our guided tours are created so that they are not one-sided, but facilitated dialogue used as a touchpoint to invite conversation.”



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