Martin Luther King anniversary: the US Civil Rights Trail

Half a century on from the assassination of Martin Luther King, novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez takes a moving trip on the newly opened trail, from the great man’s birthplace to the site of his death in Memphis

If you want to understand America, you must do the US Civil Rights Trail. A deep journey through the conscience of a nation, the sites commemorating the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights movement reveal a country trying to reconcile its founding principles with its racial inequities. This period marked the most significant division the nation had faced since its civil war. Throughout the trip, I kept asking myself: what would I do for freedom? There is no way to come away from the Trail without feeling transformed. The trip is equal parts history and inspiration.

The US Civil Rights Trail is a visionary idea: it connects the 110 sites and museums – mostly across the south, but stretching from Kansas in the Midwest to Delaware in New England – into a coherent map of a nation’s struggle and triumph. It opened officially in January this year, so in honour of next week’s 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr (4 April 1968), over five days I travel the 700-mile segment from his birthplace in Atlanta to the place he died in Memphis.

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