This month Southern tourism departments banded together to unveil The U.S. Civil Rights Trail. The trail links 110 historic sites, from Kansas to Delaware. These are places where the struggle for equality for African Americans left a mark.
Ironically, many of the states rallying behind the marketing effort now are places where racial segregation was, and is the most entrenched. We get a couple of perspectives: Maurice Hobson is a Professor at Georgia State University. And Karl Barnes is a retired urban planner and advocate for African American historical preservation.
Celeste Headlee: Why is this [Civil Rights Trail] a subject of debate?
Maurice Hobson: Well, it’s a subject of debate because of the political tenor of the United States at this moment. The conversation around the Confederate monuments and th4e civil rights trails is a polemic kind of battle. So with that being said, oftentimes this idea of civil rights memory is something that works to present a particular kind of curriculum to commemorate, but often times it’s apart of political support of tourism that is part of the political economy.
Headlee: Do you think that this trail could bring some attention to some lesser-known places?
Karl Barnes: Yes, I was with the Georgia Civil War Commission, which was a statewide organization and we created civil war tours across the state of Georgia. So when you start talking about getting the average citizen to understand why civil rights is important in the state of Georgia, these trails will show the average person in the community the history of the state of Georgia and the history of civil rights across Georgia, not just in Atlanta, which has already been known as a mecca, but you get to Albany, you get to southwest Georgia, you get to southeast Georgia [Savannah]…You begin to understand some of our laws. Historical figures and the trails and their journeys and what they have done to make particularly voting housing available to the African-American community across the great state of Georgia.
Headlee: Do you think they did a good job of marking out the important sites?
Hobson: I think that they’ve done a good job of those that are known, but we are just scratching the surface. As we move forward we’re going to find new sites. We’re going to find Underground Railroad sites that have been demolished and histories that have been lost, that’s going to be the exciting thing about it. I mean when we begin to do the archaeologist, go in, and began to excavate and understand, that’s where things are. There are new things that will be discovered in this process.
Headlee: The Civil Rights Trail is largely a tourist effort. So, what are we to make of this commercialization of Civil Rights history?
Hobson: We have to be careful that we don’t sanitize it, as Mr. Barnes said. There are several other conversations around civil and human rights that it’s not just about race. We have conversations around equal pay for women. We have conversations around the LGBTQ community and inclusiveness. So there is a larger conversation that is apart of this new movement. Basically there is a mechanism amongst us that oppresses. It manifests differently based on who it is oppressing and marginalizing. What we must do is produce conversations that come from the ground up. There are a lot of spiritual contexts that may say “the greatest among you, shall be the least.” So when we understand with those that are most oppressed and what they’re dealing with, then we can understand how to change it from the top, in terms of policy and some different things. The Civil Rights Trail is nice, but we have to make sure that it’s not sanitized.