My first trip to Georgia took me on a civil rights journey that no textbook can fully emulate. Yes, I learned about the civil rights movement in school, but following the footsteps of notable civil rights leaders was a moving experience unlike anything I’ve done before. 

Georgia’s Footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Trail highlights 28 sites across the state that tell the stories of how civil rights leaders advanced social justice and shifted the course of history. The trail includes a portion of the official U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which stretches across 15 states and the District of Columbia.

Warm welcome

My group’s first night in Atlanta took us to Paschal’s — a legendary soul food restaurant famous for its fried chicken and being a meeting place for many major politicians, business people, entertainers and even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement.

Marshall Slack, who has worked at Paschal’s since he was 9 years old, shared bits of civil rights history and Dr. King anecdotes during our dinner; it was eye-opening to speak with someone who knew Dr. King personally. King’s favorite meal? Fried chicken and collard greens.

On April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, it was only fitting the weather was dreary, with rain drizzling down from dark clouds above Dr. King’s tomb. We were in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, just outside Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Birth Home in Atlanta, Georgia
Martin Luther King, Jr. Birth Home, Atlanta, Ga.
Credit: GTM/Kelsey Smith

The park consists of King’s birth home; Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King and his father preached; and his resting place at The King Center. Inside the visitor center, video exhibits echoed along curved walls full of facts and details about the civil rights movement and King’s fight for equality.

As I made my way through the gallery (tissue in hand), I followed the sound of King’s voice: “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.”

Dr. King delivered his foreshadowing “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3, 1968 — just one day before his assassination.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.”

Songs of freedom

In Albany, we visited the Albany Civil Rights Institute, which is located next to the restored 1906 Mount Zion First Baptist Church. We explored exhibits detailing the civil rights struggle through oral histories, photographs, documents and artifacts.

Mount Zion First Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia
Mount Zion First Baptist Church, Albany, Ga.
Credit: Todd Stone

After our guided tour, we went next door to the church and met Rutha Mae Harris, a founding member of The Freedom Singers, a civil rights-inspired quartet originating out of Albany State College.

After Harris began singing, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. She asked us all to sing with her, which included a rendition of “Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me ‘Round.” Harris sang more songs and shared personal stories; groups can see the Freedom Singers perform at the church every second Saturday of the month.

Fighting for social change

After riding on the motorcoach for three days, we made it to our final destination: Savannah. The radiant sunlight and warm, coastal air welcomed us with open arms as we stepped off the bus and into the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum.

The museum’s director, Vaughnette Goode-Walker, greeted us at the door and quickly jumped into the story of Ralph Mark Gilbert. Gilbert served as the president of the local NAACP chapter from 1942–1950 and secured recognition for over 40 chapters throughout Georgia, making him the father of the civil rights movement in Savannah.

Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum in Savannah, Georgia
Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, Savannah, Ga.
Credit: Geoff Johnson

We explored exhibits chronicling the civil rights struggle of Georgia’s oldest African-American community, from slavery to the present, before wrapping up our trip.

Five full days, hundreds of miles, plenty of laughter and, of course, never-ending plates of authentic soul food, all added up to a remarkable trip. But what I took away the most from my time in Georgia were the stories of the people who lived and provoked change during the civil rights movement.

Georgia’s new trail gives groups the unique opportunity to hear these stories firsthand, inspiring them to continue the same fight for equality today.

Georgia Department of Economic Development