I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I visited the National Civil Rights Museum last week. Because I think I’ve fallen into the trap of seeing The Movement as a brief period in history: Brown v. Board of Education (1954) through the Voting Rights Act (1965). But the Civil Rights Movement actually spans 12 generations.
While the museum is built inside the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated, the museum exhibitions capture our long history of resistance.
Our History of Resistance
From the time our ancestors set foot on North American soil, they were resisting. The tour begins with an explanation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which highlights several uprisings and shows advertisements offering rewards for the return of runaways.
Millions of mothers, fathers and children were ripped from their homeland only to end up on the auction block, just like the mother and her child pictured here. But they didn’t go quietly.
A Step Forward, A Step Back
After the Emancipation Proclamation, there was a consistent struggle to secure or erase equal rights for our ancestors because so much of the economy depended on free labor. Banks benefited from the cash flow of buying and selling human beings. Insurance companies wrote policies that covered the shipping of slaves. Brooks Brothers, even, supplied landowners with ‘plantation clothing.’
- 1865 – The Civil War ends. The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified stating that “neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude…shall exist” in the United States. The Freedman’s Bureau was established to help transition former slaves to independence, and the Ku Klux Klan is formed.
- 1870 – The Fifteenth Amendment is enacted and guarantees that no one will be denied the right to vote on the basis of race. The same year, the first Jim Crow law is passed in Tennessee.
- 1875 – Congress enacts the first Civil Rights Act.
- 1883 – The Supreme Court strikes down the first Civil Rights Act, explaining that Congress may only act on “discrimination by the government and not that of private citizens.”
- 1896 – The Supreme Court rules in favor of the “separate but equal” doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson.
Montgomery, Birmingham and Mississippi
Admittedly, I spent too much time in the first one-third of the museum and ended up having to rush through the last 60 years of The Movement. But reading about the bus boycotts, bombings and the Mississippi Freedom Summer was much different than seeing it on the clips.
Why? Because you really get a sense of just what our elders risked…everything.
There’s even a quote from a conversation between activist, SNCC co-founder and Freedom Rider Diane Nash and the Kennedy Administration. The Administration asks the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) not to continue with the Freedom Rides, because they are risking their lives.
Diane Nash responds by saying “we’ve already completed our wills and notified our next of kin.”
Dr. King’s Last Moments
The last part of the museum is dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King’s last days and moments. Even though no signs are posted to keep quiet—everyone does. Heaviness just seems to hang in the air as you read about his last meal, his last phone call and the frantic moments surrounding his death.
Thankfully, the museum doesn’t end there.
It continues for one more exhibit to highlight people that have kept Dr. King’s dream alive by continuing the fight for freedom. People like Nelson Mandela, Oprah and Soledad O’Brien, a 2016 Freedom Awardee, which are keeping us on the path of the long walk towards freedom.
Why The Movement STILL Matters
After touring the museum, I had the chance to attend the Freedom Awards, interview awardees and talk with supporters of the National Civil Rights Museum. A quote by a long-time supporter stuck with me, because it reminded me why the movement still matters.
We cannot afford to get complacent, we have a generation of young people that need to know the struggle. So we must keep the message [of freedom] alive. We must keep Dr. King’s dream alive.— Nelda Burroughs
I’m grateful to African Pride for supporting the museum and including me on their press trip. Because of them, I got to take in the overarching message—freedom ain’t free. And we STILL have a long way to go.
BMWK: Why does the civil rights movement still matter?