It is fitting that the first national holiday after New Year’s is aligned with avid traveler mantras of freedom, peace, and understanding. On Monday January 20th, we celebrate civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The MLK holiday was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in November 1983, after 15 years of congressional lobbying efforts. With that triumph, challenges still persisted at the local level, and it wasn’t until 2000 that every US state honored the observance.
Through references in grade school and popular media, you may be familiar with cities like Atlanta, Birmingham, and Selma, where MLK made his imprint, but you may not know how these 7 other communities factored significantly in his story. Below is some background on destinations lesser known for their MLK history and upcoming local events where you can experience more of their cultures and traditions.
1. St. Augustine, FL
St. Augustine is the nation’s oldest city, established by the Spanish in 1565. It was the site of the nation’s first legally sanctioned free Black settlement at Fort Mose, which was chartered by the Spanish governor in 1738. Escaped British slaves could gain freedom by converting to Catholicism and fighting to defend the territory.
Even with these more conciliatory origins, the Black community in St. Augustine fought against the same discrimination experienced in the rest of the country. St. Augustine was the location of the famous Woolworth counter sit-in in 1963 and was the site of extensive MLK organizing directly leading up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
On February 6-8, 2020, visitors to St. Augustine can check out the Flight to Freedom event at Fort Mose Historic State Park. It’s an opportunity to learn about those who fled to St. Augustine in search of freedom between 1687 and 1763. Guest speakers and demonstrators will also teach Spanish, African, and Native American food traditions and culture.
2. Boston, Massachusetts
MLK is referred to with his doctoral title, and Boston University is where he earned his PhD in systematic theology. Dr. King also met his wife Coretta while she was a student at the New England Conservatory of Music. King gave several speeches in Boston throughout the 1960s and led the first civil rights march in the Northeast from Roxbury to Boston Common.
Given MLK’s rich legacy in the city, many of Boston’s institutions offer free and commemorative events around his birthday. Enjoy free access to the Museum of Fine Arts, the Institute for Contemporary Art, the Franklin Park Zoo, and the Stone Zoo. In addition to free entry, the Gardner Art Museum will also be engaging visitors in service projects. See HERE for these and more upcoming Boston events and experiences.
3. Harlem, NY
In September 1958, Dr. King published his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, a memoir about the Montgomery bus boycott. Just days after the book’s release, MLK hosted a signing at Blumstein’s Department Store in Harlem, where a schizophrenic woman stabbed him with a letter opener. King was rushed to Harlem Hospital where a team of talented doctors successfully removed the 7-inch steel object from his chest. Upon learning of his attacker’s mental state, King expressed that he felt no bitterness and offered sympathy to his assailant.
Harlem is world-renowned for its 1920’s Renaissance and generally for its art, history, and culture. Harlem Fashion Week is a contemporary event that celebrates the intersection of art, literature, music and fashion, for which the community is famous. Upcoming activities will be held on February 15, 2020 and include an emerging designer show and a charity gala. While you’re in the area, check out the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, open every day except Sundays.
4. Chester, Pennsylvania
King was an advanced student. After graduating high school early at the age of 15, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology at Morehouse College. After Morehouse, MLK attended and was the valedictorian at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, a suburban town just 18 miles from Philadelphia. Crozer was attractive to King for its liberal theological leanings, and it was there that he was introduced to Gandhian ideas and developed his perspective on nonviolent protest as a tool for social reform.
Over MLK weekend (January 18-20, 2020), the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia is hosting a variety of programming expounding on the diverse communities that banded together in support of the American Revolution. At select times, there will be 30-min talks about persons of African descent who found freedom on all sides of the Revolutionary War. Visitors will also have the opportunity to learn about African American entrepreneur and abolitionist James Forten, who shared similar visions with Dr. King.
5. Albany, GA
Dr. King and his colleagues joined ongoing protests as a part of the Albany Movement in 1961-1962. A coalition organized to challenge segregation and discrimination broadly in the city. Although there was some specific focus on desegregating interstate transit hubs, there was no decisive victory in Albany at the time of King’s departure. However, he and fellow activists leveraged the lessons of Albany and learned to have a more targeted strategy for Birmingham and other successful city campaigns that followed.
Albany visitors can reflect on the past, present and future at the Albany Civil Rights Institute (ACRI), which features a timeline of events at the local, state and national level. The ACRI began in the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church, which hosted overflow crowds in 1961, when King was scheduled to speak to an audience at Shiloh Baptist Church across the street. After speaking to both congregations, King led a march to the Trailways Bus Station. The beautiful new ACRI opened in 2008, and museum visitors can listen to stories from the leaders of the Albany Movement.
6. Chicago, IL
In 1966, Dr. King and his fellow organizers expanded their civil rights campaigns from the south to address the struggles of African Americans in northern slums. King and his family moved into one such Chicago neighborhood so that he could experience the conditions first hand. The Chicago campaign was designed to address racial discrimination in housing and employment. Citizens opposed to the initiative threw bricks and bottles at the demonstrators, and MLK was struck by a rock. The unrest subsided after some conciliatory negotiations with then-mayor Richard Daley.
The African American community in Chicago expanded in the 1900s as a result of the Great Migration, the movement of Southern Blacks to the North and West in search of economic opportunity. Visitors can learn the history of the Black labor movement at the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. And for a taste of jazz and blues culture introduced by the migrants, you can check out venues like the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, Andy’s Jazz Club, and Kingston Mines. Today, thriving Black communities exist in neighborhoods across the city, with Bronzeville and Hyde Park as two particular areas of interest. See HERE for more on these and other attractions tied to Chicago’s rich African American heritage.
7. Washington, DC
MLK is renowned for his “I Have A Dream” speech during the March on Washington in 1963. He advocated for an end to racism as well as economic and civil liberties. It is one of the (if not the) most famous calls for freedom in U.S. history. However, this was not King’s only significant address in Washington, DC. In May 1957, he delivered his first national address at the Lincoln Memorial entitled “Give Us The Ballot.” King’s were the closing remarks at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, an event that drew 20,000 spectators for the cause of civil rights after progress stalled following the desegregation ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education.
The controversial former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is documented as having had personal animosity towards Dr. King, believing him to be influenced by Communists. Although the domestic intelligence and security agency had been monitoring King since 1955, Hoover got authorization to wiretap King’s home and offices in Oct 1963, just a few months after the success of “I Have a Dream.” Visitors to DC can visit lesser known King landmarks like the “I Have a Dream” mural and The Willard Intercontinental (hotel where the speech was completed). The Spy Museum is also hosting a Spy Fest on the evening of Friday, January 31st, where you can learn some of the tactics of intelligence agents through demonstrations and skill challenges.