"On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail" is more than just a recollection of an important movement, it is an examination of "the idea of and the pursuit of freedom." Charles E. Cobb Jr. pens a unique travel guide and a great reference manual on civil rights history. He dissects the perils, privileges and the high cost of freedom in nine southern states, from his hometown of Washington, D.C. to rural Tennessee.
Cobb arrives in "Old North State" Durham, N.C. It was the first of 13 original colonies to vote for independence; and appropriately, the fourth state he mentions on the civil rights trail.
He discusses the substance of his book with me in the lobby of the Durham Marriott at the Civic Center. It is located in the heart of downtown Durham, and is only two miles from Duke University. The extravagant lobby of this hotel provides a private and picturesque backdrop where Cobb states the reason for releasing his book on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. "King is not only important to the Civil Rights Movement, he was at the center of the movement," he says.
The popularity of heritage tourism emerges after the Civil Rights Movement. Interests in one's roots vary from slavery to ancestry. "The '60s helped uproot the attention of black history and voting rights issues," says Cobb.
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If he could visit only one place on the civil rights trail, it would be Alabama. "Alabama is the host of marked civil rights sites," says Cobb. "Here was the beginning of grass roots organizations - the idea of civil rights community organizing versus public protests. In Montgomery, Ala., Martin Luther King Jr. shows us two sides of himself, both as a family man and a young minister."
Cobb believes that in a racist society, there are limited opportunities. "The church is the one institution that black people controlled. Churches had two purposes – that of a religious mission and a social mission," he says. There is little argument that churches shaped the Civil Rights Movement, but according to Cobb, the spark that started it all was slavery.
"Slavery and the Civil Rights Movement were best understood as a movement of community organizing and that tradition begins when the first slaves arrived. They were planning and plotting ... escape, revolt, sabotage or something," Cobb adds.
Book lovers and the Regulator Bookshop
The eclectic Regulator Bookshop, located on Ninth Street in Durham, N.C., is host to numerous readings by authors and poets. The bookstore first opened its doors on Dec. 4, 1976; and it continues to provide a pleasant forum for book lovers. Downstairs is a cozy stage where readers, authors and books come together. Tonight, readers descend these stairs to share the book, "On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail" with its author.
"Stay here and do something"
Cobb grew up in segregated Washington, D.C. He remembers his involvement in sit-ins at the age of 18. He had only read about Freedom Rides, and ironically, ended up in jail where he heard about the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee's (SNCC) work in Albany, Ga. and Mississippi. At the age of 19, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) invited him to attend a Civil Rights Leader Workshop in Houston, Texas. According to Cobb, he never made it to Houston, instead he was enticed with a direct challenge for him to stay in Mississippi: "Stay here and do something." He stayed for almost five years in a state that was defined by the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.
Women and the Civil Rights Movement
Throughout his book, Cobb highlights the leadership of women in the Civil Rights Movement. He says that in all critical mentions, you will find the leadership of women. "And secondly," he says, "history clearly demonstrates how the Atlanta student sit-ins changed the course of U.S. politics by swinging tens of thousands of black votes to John Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election."
Ella Josephine Baker comes to mind when Cobb speaks of women from the southern Civil Rights Movement. Baker was the first and temporary executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "She influenced almost a half century of civil rights struggle," says Cobb. "Baker spoke to Martin Luther King Jr. about the importance of sit-ins and asked him to come up to North Carolina. King spoke at a mass meeting in Durham, and he acknowledged the importance of students and he issued a public call to fill up jails."
Cobb remembers Marian Anderson, a black contralto who was denied the right to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. "This was the first national manifestation to opposition against racial discrimination; and the modern civil rights saga begins," says Cobb. "It was a mass demonstration, not merely a protest, in support of Marian Anderson and in support of the idea that race should not trump ability."
More than a history lesson
Milestones of the Civil Rights Movement include Bloody Monday, the trial of Emmett Till, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s passionate letter written from a Birmingham jail and the assassination of King in Memphis, Tenn. Historic monuments, museums and sites emerged as a result of these tumultuous events and are documented on the civil rights trail.
Vivid photographs depict significant faces and places of a civil rights era. Telling portraits include those of a slave auction house in Atlanta and the Selma-to-Montgomery march passing over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Witness powerful photos of unknown protesters refusing bail; McComb high school students campaigning for the right to vote; and the proud stance of activist Gloria Richardson.
Discover a valuable history lesson and revisit the civil rights era with author Charles E. Cobb Jr.