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Following the Civil Rights Trail


This article is part of our latest special report on Museums, which focuses on the intersection of art and politics.

For many Americans now, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s has faded into history, reflected in old black and white photos that look like they were taken in some faraway land.

For others, though, those years and the events that unfolded remain embedded in our psyches, having profoundly affected who we came to be. I count myself among the latter, which is why I decided to spend some of the last two years on sporadic road trips with a friend visiting small, sometimes out of the way civil rights museums that are sprinkled throughout the American Deep South. The timing seemed so right.

Many pay homage to the victims of long hidden injustices and crimes. At the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, for instance, tablets memorialize Mississippians who had been lynched. On one of the days I visited, a family from the eastern part of the state had found the name of a relative there.

“We never knew what happened to him,” a man told me. “But he’s here.”

The museums are often on the actual site of critical events, delivering an experience to activist baby boomers similar to what “Greatest Generation” veterans must feel at Omaha Beach or Iwo Jima. At the Alabama memorial honoring the victims of slavery and lynching, I met a California man who had been active in the voter registration campaigns of Lowndes County in 1965. He was in his 20s then and his civil rights work was one of the formative experiences of his life. “I wanted my son to see these places,” he said, while introducing me to a shy sandy-haired youngster by his side.

Seeing the commemoration of events key to my own coming-of-age was certainly part of the draw for me.

I was a Brooklyn high school student in February 1960, when four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State College staged a sit-in at a “whites only” Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro and ignited the 1960s. (Today, that lunch counter is displayed at the Greensboro International Civil Rights Center and Museum.)

The example of the Greensboro Four galvanized my generation. For me, the New York-born child of refugees from Nazi Germany, the civil rights movement was a path to understanding my own American identity. I’d cut classes in high school — way too boring and unreal, I thought — to picket Woolworth’s branches in Manhattan. Later, while in my freshman year at New York University, I went on Freedom Rides to Maryland. In fact, I helped integrate a lunch counter in the town of Westminster. I was 18.

It’s moving to see the contributions of people I once knew — or knew of — get their due. Most important, there’s a moral recharge in returning to a moment when thousands of Americans — black and white, risked their safety and lives, to make the country fulfill its promise.

A useful starting point, the museum is the site of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.

Dr. King — his life, death and legacy — are at the heart of this museum’s mission. At the same time, the curators display artifacts, photographs, videos and audio recordings that show the wider context of his work.

There are galleries devoted to the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, the 1963 March on Washington where he gave the “I Have a Dream Speech,” and the event that brought Dr. King to Memphis — a strike by garbage collectors seeking union recognition.

Of course, what makes this museum unusual is its venue. The Lorraine Motel is where Dr. King, then 39, stood on the balcony of Room 306 and was killed by an assassin’s bullet. Visitors get to see Room 306, almost as it was that evening. A catfish dinner sits on the table. A newspaper — perhaps with the latest on the sanitation workers’ strike — has been tossed onto a double bed.

To anyone alive and conscious in 1968, the details are painful. On the day I toured, several visitors wept.

“We’re trying to tell the story of a people’s journey from enslavement to almost freedom,” explained the museum’s president, Terri Lee Freeman, who said more than 360,000 visitors from 70 countries stopped at the Lorraine last year.

When the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opened its doors on Dec. 9, 2017, it astonished.

Half of the newly built Museum of Mississippi History, this was the first civil rights museum anywhere to be sponsored by a state government. And the state was Mississippi, where the Confederate symbol still remained a part of the official flag.

Strenuous lobbying by a coalition of civic leaders, including former Gov. William Winter, a Democrat, and a then-sitting Republican governor, Haley Barbour, made the museum happen. Mississippi had been ground zero of the civil rights years and the struggles here, they argued, required remembrance.

The schema at the museum involves taking visitors through a series of galleries designed to transport them into another time. An exhibit on the experiences of black soldiers after they returned home from World War II, “A Closed Society,” includes artifacts belonging to Medgar Evers, who helped build the civil rights movement in those years. Another gallery takes the visitor into the living room of Mr. Evers and his wife, Myrlie Evers, on the June 1963 night that the white nationalist, Byron De La Beckwith, shot him in the driveway of their Jackson home.

The rifle used in the killing is on display.

Unique to this museum is the emphasis on many lesser known black Mississippians. One exhibit is devoted to the 1966 killing of a Hattiesburg voter registration activist, Vernon Dahmer. Two carloads of Ku Klux Klansmen firebombed Mr. Dahmer’s home. He was able to rescue his wife and children before dying of smoke inhalation.

A retired teacher who had traveled to the museum from a town near Hattiesburg left the Dahmer exhibition quite shaken. “This is so important for the younger generation to see,” she told me. “They don’t teach this much in the schools.”

The Birmingham Movement of 1963 — led by Dr. King and a local minister, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth — has often been called, “the Children’s Crusade.”

African-American youngsters 10 and 11 years old joined their religious leaders in demanding courteous treatment at downtown stores and restaurants. The authorities answered with fire hoses and snarling police dogs. Hundreds of Birmingham’s children defied orders against demonstrating, filling up the city’s jails. Later that year, when white supremacists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, it was four teenage girls attending Sunday school who died.

Massive outrage led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Today, the neighborhood surrounding the 16th Street Baptist Church is a National Park Service monument. Kelly Ingram Park, where police dogs were set on demonstrators, is a memorial sculpture garden. Local churches, including the 16th Street Baptist, give tours.

Directly across from Kelly Ingram Park is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute — the B.C.R.I. since 1992, a museum and archive documenting all that happened here.

There’s an exhibit on the violent campaigns to unionize the city’s main industry — steel. Another, on how the Ku Klux Klan terrorized Birmingham’s blacks, transforming what could have been one of the most developed cities in the South into a place nicknamed, “Bombingham.”

“We’re located where the history happened,” asserts the B.C.R.I.’s president and C.E.O., Andrea L. Taylor. “There’s no substitute for going to a location where important history has taken place.”

The newest of these venues, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, aims at bringing hidden chapters of American history into contemporary consciousness — specifically the legacies of slavery and lynching.

The memorial opened in April of 2018.

Oddly enough, this project grew from the legal work of a death penalty defense lawyer, Bryan Stevenson. In a telephone interview, he explained that he’d see how the “cultural rationale around racial bias” played out in court and how it “was impacting litigation.” The experience made him think Americans needed some education on what he terms, “the impact of white supremacy on virtually every aspect of American society.”

Visits to South Africa’s Apartheid Museum and Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial inspired him to consider building what he terms “a narrative museum” in Montgomery, where his offices are based.

For relatively little money, Mr. Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, was able to acquire six acres of land overlooking downtown. With philanthropic support, he and his colleagues used the space to erect a monument to over 4,400 American citizens lynched in the years between 1877 and 1950.

The monument is at once gorgeous and terrifying. The Equal Justice Initiative — meaning Mr. Stevenson and his colleagues — is credited with designing 800 six-foot-tall “monuments” that are suspended in rows from a ceiling-like structure. Each represents a county where lynchings had occurred. The names of the victims and the dates of their murders are burned into these massive hanging pillars. As one walks past them, one feels the cumulative impact of the killings. One wants to know more.

Some answers can be found at the initiative’s nearby Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. There, in what was once a slaver’s warehouse, a progression of exhibits shows the relationship between these past events and contemporary social problems.

Despite its grim subject matter, the museum and monument have proved a boon to Montgomery’s economy. According to Mr. Stevenson, six new hotels have commenced construction.


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