Black History Month has produced an indispensible gift: Charles E. Cobb Jr.'s guided tour of civil rights landmarks. His new book, "On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, N.C.), brings the Movement back to life for both young and old. No collection of civil rights books is complete without Charlie Cobbs' new masterpiece.
Our journey begins in Washington, D.C., the author's hometown. Cobbs fittingly opens this chapter with a 1906 quote from Mary Church Terrell: "…Nowhere in the world do oppression and persecution based solely on the color of the skin appear more hateful and hideous than in the capital of the United States, because the chasm between the principles upon which this Government was founded, in which it still professes to believe, and those which are daily practiced under the protection of the flag, yawns so wide and deep."
One can never look at Constitution Hall the same after realizing that the Daughters of the American Revolution, owners of the facility, refused to let singer Marian Anderson perform there in 1939 because of her race. Led by outraged First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the event was switched to the Lincoln Memorial, where 75,000 people saw Anderson perform.
Taking us along the corridors of the U.S. Capitol, our tour guide writes, "…Enslaved black people formed over half the labor force that built it. These slaves worked Virginia quarries, digging and transporting the stone for the Capitol. They baked bricks, dug ditches, hauled logs, and performed every task requiring strenuous manual labor, but their 'owners' were paid for their work."
A few blocks away, the old Charles Hotel on the northeast corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 3rd Street, now John Marshall Square, "quickly became a favorite of buyers in town to purchase slaves," Cobbs writes. "Its basement contained six, 30-foot-long arched holding cells that extended underneath Pennsylvania Avenue. Iron grates at street level provided air and a bit of sunlight. The hotel advertised the iron rings embedded in its walls and promised to reimburse guests the 'full value' of slaves who managed to escape." He noted, "Except for the government, slave trading was the city's largest industry."
Later this year, the first national museum dedicated to slavery, is scheduled to open in Fredericksburg, Va. The 290,000-square-foot museum will contain a replica of a Portuguese slave ship.
The Rosa Parks Library and Museum and Dr. King's old church are covered in the Montgomery, Ala. tours. But Cobbs makes sure we don't miss the Civil Rights Memorial and Visitors Center at 400 Washington Avenue. While not part of the 1950s bus boycott movement, the memorial contains the names of 40 civil rights martyrs that died between 1954 and 1968.
"In Lowndes County [Ala.], one of the most creative campaigns for black political power took hold," Cobbs writes. "Comic books were designed and distributed explaining the duties of all county officers. One comic book tracks the growing political awareness of a 'Mr. Blackman,' who, in the end, registers to vote and becomes sheriff. It is here that we see the roots of [Stokely' Carmichael's call for Black Power."
The major battlefields in Birmingham, the Mississippi Delta and Memphis are all covered in great detail. But it is the intimate exchanges, some never previously reported, that makes this book so rich.
Cobbs recalls, "Lawrence Guyot, who later became chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party – challenged me when I explained that I was just passing through on the way to a civil rights workshop in Texas.
"'Civil rights workshop in Texas!' Guyot sneered, giving me a hard look. 'Tell me just what's the point of going to Texas for a workshop on civil rights when you're standing right here in Mississippi?'"
Cobbs never made it to Texas. And because he chose to remain active in the movement, there is no person better qualified to serve as our civil rights tour guide.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach.