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Touring Civil Rights History on Two Wheels

The new Atlanta company Civil Bikes offers bike rentals and history tours with a side of community-building.

The original Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor, in Atlanta's Sweet Auburn area. (Scott Sherrill-Mix/Flickr)

Over the past few years, the powers that be of bicycling have been working steadily toward normalizing the mode. This is both well-intentioned and right: When compared to cars in the face of a climate-change disaster, bikes and other alternate transit modes are something of a silver bullet.

That said, biking still retains much of its former scrappy identity. And for Atlanta's Civil Bikes, a new rental and tour operation run out of a shipping container off the Belt Line, scrappiness is a fitting calling card.

Nedra Deadwyler, a practiced cyclist who has ridden for transportation in Seattle and New York, began Civil Bikes in early 2014. After road-tripping through the American South with a journalist friend who was researching sites critical to the Civil Rights movement, Deadwyler felt that a shorter, similar educational route could be traversed on two wheels.

Nedra Deadwyler (Cameron Adams)

Civil Bikes' primary services are bike rentals and tours of Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward and downtown/Piedmont Park. The tours, guided by Deadwyler on weekends, generally take in historically black neighborhoods like the Sweet Auburn Historic District and Washington Park, and the Georgia State Capitol, which students marched on in 1960.

In addition, Deadwyler hosts yoga classes and encourages more women to take up cycling through Belles on Bikes, a loose organization that holds regular ladies' rides for all skill levels.

A cycling tour is more intimate than a driving tour, offering a heightened awareness of where you are and what you're doing. While experiencing places important to the the Civil Rights movement, biking from site to site seems appropriate, connected to the physicality of protest, of marches and sit-ins.

As a black woman living in a sprawling Southern city, Deadwyler epitomizes the hopes that advocates-with-a-capital-A hold for the future of biking as transportation in the U.S. She's not hesitant to say that getting more black—and Southern, even—women on bikes is important and relevant to her.

Over a half-hour phone call, we zing around the myriad benefits of and stumbling blocks to cycling: having friends to ride with, the expectations of what "proper" ladies should be doing, how to wear makeup when you know you'll be sweating, and so on. Deadwyler ran an informal survey of her customers and friends, who said that they wanted to ride but felt there was a distinct physical danger or possibility of assault associated with it.

Still, she says, she rents a lot of bikes to women who want to explore the Belt Line, and can tell they've enjoyed themselves upon their return. "More ladies are having fun," she says. "That's happening in Atlanta now."

The language that Civil Bikes uses to market itself has a cultural-studies bent. ("We selected the word 'civil' for its many meanings: its reference to the Civil Rights Movement; 'of or relating to ordinary citizens' and 'courteous and polite,'"  the Civil Bikes website reads.) The shop dovetails nicely with Deadwyler's graduate work in historic preservation at Georgia State University, which teaches the topic with an eye toward social preservation and oral history. And as a self-described descendant of "preachers, teachers, and social workers," she has an almost genetic predilection toward community-building.

"There's a certain type of person attracted to bikes," she says. "I didn't intend to create Civil Bikes, but it's spiritual—I listened to my internal voice. It came out of being open."

A Civil Bikes tour visits the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site.

Civil Bikes is still fledgling, and it's in Atlanta—a car-oriented city figuring out what it wants to be next, particularly in the urban-planning sense. So the future of Deadwyler's operation and the city it calls home are both up in the air.

"On a local level, I'd like to have a tour of every neighborhood," says Deadwylder. But "I'm a nomad at heart. I'd love to travel internationally and help nonprofits."

The biggest boon for mainstreaming bicycling in America has been, without a doubt, bikesharing systems, which have lowered the barrier to entry for new cyclists while appealing to hardened commuters. And the ground-up, community-building work of advocates like Deadwyler is its own kind of sharing system—one that communicates a place's character through personal connection, storytelling, and physical interaction with history.

About the Author

  • Alex Baca presently lives in San Francisco, works in design, and writes about cities and transportation. She previously lived in D.C. and worked in bike advocacy, and has written for Washington City Paper and Next City.