"For Us the Living": Visits to Civil Rights Museums

Article excerpt

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MEMPHIS

"How many of you know what a lynching really is?" The tour guide at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is speaking to a high school group, mostly African American. "Well, here's a picture of one." She points to a grim, grainy photograph. No doubt, most in the group could have defined "lynching," but how many had ever seen a photograph of one? From the looks on their faces, very few. The group moves on, but several boys hang back to examine the photograph in silence.

An Amish family from central Illinois passes by--men with long squared-off beards, girls in white lace bonnets, long modest dresses, and black wool stockings. The Amish do not drive motor vehicles; they travel as little as possible. What brought them here? A member of the group explains that they've come to Memphis so that one of their children can receive treatment for colon cancer. Yet in spite of this pressing personal mission, they've asked a friend to drive them to the National Civil Rights Museum.

"Our people know what it means to be persecuted," their driver says. We're standing in front of a large projection screen displaying news footage of Birmingham police blasting demonstrators with fire hoses. "You know, the Amish trace their roots to the Reformation. They called us Anabaptists then and treated us like enemies of God. We admire Dr. King because he believed in non-violence. Back at the time of World War I, they drafted our boys, but we were conscientious objectors. Folks took it pretty hard when we refused to fight--there were quite a few beatings."

His words compete with the din of Birmingham: whooshing hoses, crackling police radios, the shouts of scattering demonstrators. "You look at this," the Amish driver says, "and you can see those police are not thinking as people--as individuals, I mean. They've become a mob. They're not acting like people of conscience."

The National Civil Rights Museum is housed in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. The front of the historic motel remains intact: every visitor must pass beneath the balcony where Dr. King was slain. To someone like myself, who remembers the Civil Rights Movement vividly and whose own life was changed by those times, it's bewildering to see that events of my youth are already "history," that people are gathering up images and artifacts and narratives from those days to present them in institutes and museums scattered throughout the South. What are these museums like? What effect do they have on the people who visit them? That's what I've come to find out.

"I'm from Bartlett County," Jill Crumpton says. "We're in the suburbs, and you can see that my students are mostly white. I bring them here every year." Her ten-and eleven-year-olds are clean cut and extremely attentive--and they're getting an earful from their guide. "... After they hung Nat Turner, they left him hanging there. Then they peeled his skin off and boiled it down for oil--and they used the oil to grease wagon wheels. Now, why would they do that to a man they'd already killed?"

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"To punish him," one child responds.

"But he already was punished," the guide prompts. "He was dead."

"To show blacks they were slaves and to let them know their masters could do what they wanted to them."

"He killed fifty-four whites," a tow-haired boy adds, "so maybe they wanted to scare the other slaves--but I bet they were scared too."

"We try to do a lot with black history," Jill Crumpton says. "But I'll tell you, we still have some parents who won't let their children come to the museum. They may say they're worried about Memphis, about coming to the 'big city,' but you can tell when it's something else. Their children are missing a valuable educational experience."

"This is the thing I think I'll remember," Rachel observes. …