Following the journey of civil rights in Atlanta


by Heather Lusk

Atlanta has been called the cradle of the civil rights movement for being home to so many of its leaders and organizations. The city’s symbol is the phoenix, and just as the mythical bird renews and perseveres, Atlanta similarly evolves and continues to grow over time.

Even though Atlanta now sprawls far beyond its original boundaries, the best way to experience it is at its heart, downtown, where so much history remains. 

Start the day at the Atlanta History Center. This downtown organization has evolved from a basic repository of history to engaging and encouraging discussion and multiple viewpoints. Several exhibits and programs highlight Atlanta’s past but the primary reason to visit is the Cyclorama. The full color visual experience that depicts the 1864 Battle of Atlanta is one of the largest oil paintings in the world. Its own history is controversial but thought provoking.

Next visit the Center for Civil and Human Rights located in the Battery. The center opened in 2014 with exhibits designed to help visitors link the history of civil rights with the need for human rights globally. The interactive experiences, like a segregated lunch counter, immerse visitors in these encounters with an aim to empower them.

Just a few steps away is the World of Coca Cola. While not a must-see, it’s still an interesting look at the beverage created in Atlanta and the drink’s impact around the world. Nearby Centennial Olympic Park is a beautiful landscape created for the 1996 Olympic Games with breathtaking views of the city’s skyscrapers. 

At the southeastern edge of the park catch the Atlanta Streetcar to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. The park incorporates notable Dr. King locations such as his birthplace home and Ebenezer Baptist Church where he and his father preached. At the entrance follow the actual footsteps of civil rights activists like Thurgood Marshall, Jimmy Carter, Rosa Parks and John Lewis. 

Civil Rights Tour Atlanta meets here at the gravesite of Dr. and Mrs. King. As a former driver and aide of the King family, Tom Houck takes visitors on a journey through history with his personal accounts of the civil rights movement and its impact on Atlanta. 

For dining there’s always the Atlanta institution, The Varsity. The world’s largest drive-in restaurant will be celebrating its centennial birthday at the end of this decade. It’s easy to reach via Atlanta’s light rail public transportation system, MARTA. Exit at the North Avenue Station and it’s about a block away.

A wide angle view of the colorfully lit Atlanta downtown street.

A notable way to end the trip is at Paschal’s Restaurant west of downtown, one of the few establishments in Atlanta with lodging for African-Americans in the 1960s. Although the restaurant moved from its original location in 2002, the food remains the same. The fried chicken made the restaurant famous, but the BBQ and catfish are delicious. 

A great hotel to stay at while you’re in Atlanta is the JW Marriott Atlanta Buckhead. It’s centrally located near all the museums.

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