SAVANNAH, Ga. -- It was in this historic city on the Georgia
coast, at the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1964, that
the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. declared Savannah the
most-integrated city in the South.
And, in fact, the city had done much to earn that title.
The public schools had just been integrated, several years
before Jacksonville and much of the South. In 1947, the first
black police officers in the state came on duty in Savannah. And
the oldest black church in the country is there.
It was not all easy, though. There were meetings, marches and a
16-month boycott. But there was little violence.
And, this being Savannah, where history is preserved and where
touring and tourism come so easily, there are plenty of ways to
learn that history, to see where it was made.
The Negro Heritage Trail Tours doesn't have the big fancy buses
other tour companies have. Instead, tourists are shuttled around
in a funky brown 14-passenger van during the two-hour tour.
The highlight of the tour and the centerpiece of
African-American tourism in Savannah is the Ralph Mark Gilbert
Civil Rights Museum, which opened on Martin Luther King Jr.
Boulevard in September 1996. Since then, about 50,000 people a
year have visited it.
Gilbert was the pastor of First African Baptist Church and
reorganized and revitalized the Savannah chapter of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1942.
Jacksonville's own James Weldon Johnson founded that NAACP
chapter in 1917.
The yellow brick building opened as the Wage Earners Savings
and Loan Bank in 1914 and by 1927 was the largest black-owned
bank in the country. It failed with the crash of 1929, though.
The building housed an insurance company and the local NAACP
offices until the museum moved in.
The museum presents the history of Savannah's African-Americans
from the end of the Civil War through the civil rights movement.
There are interactive computers, including one that gives a time
line of Savannah's civil rights history. Pick a year and the
computer shows what was happening then.
Displays of old laws include a Georgia law in 1866 defining a
"person of color" as anyone who has at least 1/8 African-American
blood. A 1903 law declares "white and colored children shall not
attend the same school."
A fiber optic map shows the sites of 87 civil rights events in
town. Ask for "demonstrations" and those sites light up, with
information available about each one.
The museum has a small theater that looks like a church,
appropriately because so much of the civil rights progress began
in churches. A 15-minute video tells of the turbulent '60s
through the memories of the participants. It's especially
interesting because the faces and voices are not those of the
national leaders so identified with the era. They are the
ministers and students who lived in Savannah and made their
stands in their hometown.
One was W.W. Law. He worked for the post office and was
president of the local NAACP from 1950 to 1976.
He's 75 now and retired, but has become the unofficial
chronicler of Savannah's African-American history. He gets
impatient quickly at the younger and more foolish people who
don't have his knowledge, but his memory is sharp. Not only can
he give full details on the last 30 years, he'll quickly recite
the military maneuvers that led to the Union's capture of
Savannah in 1864.
March 1960 is an important time to Law. …