Fifty Years Forward: Remembering Civil Rights at American Museums and Historic Sites

A photograph of a bus with a statue of Rosa Parks seated at the front with two black patrons seated behind the statue.

 Photo courtesy of National Civil Rights Museum

E. James West

Over the past few years, cultural institutions, federal programs, and grassroots initiatives have sought to commemorate the fiftieth anniversaries of key moments in the civil rights struggle. These efforts offer a point of reflection, but they are also indicators of the dramatic changes in African American political and cultural representation during the previous half century. One of the most visible aspects of this shift has been the rise of museums and historic sites dedicated to preserving African American history. Beginning in the 1960s, hundreds of museums, historic sites, and memorials have been established for the commemoration and study of the African American past.

More recently, we have seen a second wave of museums and institutions focusing on civil rights history and the legacy of the movement years, including the National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in 1991, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which opened in 1992. Next year the National Museum of African American History and Culture is scheduled for completion on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It will open on the back of a concerted multiyear campaign from an array of private and public institutions to commemorate the anniversaries of multiple civil rights events and acts.

The proliferation of museums and sites dedicated to civil rights history has had a major impact on the role of African American museums and historic sites more broadly through mediating public expectation of what will be stored or shared at such locations. As new museums open or existing institutions expand, they struggle to balance considerations of broader African American history with the popular fascination with, and the undoubted importance of, the movement years.

What do exhibits, events, and monuments to movement history tell us about the commemoration of civil rights anniversaries and what they mean to the people who create and consume them? How does our commemoration of civil rights history change or reinforce the way that Americans think about civil rights and race? Can African American museums or historic sites ever strike a balance between focusing on highly visible movement leaders and grassroots participation? Are they able to move away from a dominant “Montgomery to Memphis” civil rights narrative? In this essay, I reflect on interviews I conducted with museum curators and exhibition staff at a number of major sites for civil rights memory, journalists and academic researchers writing about and examining the representation of civil rights history, and tourists from the United States and abroad. For critical race theorists, the advancement of civil rights has always been intimately linked to the global image of the United States, and the “triumphant” movement years of the 1950s and 1960s were born out of and fed into developing Cold War politics and American internationalism. As such, interviews with both Americans and non-Americans can illuminate how dominant ideas about the form and function of civil rights activism in the United States play out on a global canvas.

In the nation’s capital, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial takes the figurative shadow cast by King over the movement and turns into a 30-foot-high granite relief. However, for British tourist Candice Gregory-Thomas, the act of remembering King outweighs the baggage associated with how we remember him:

This isn’t a memorial for the civil rights movement as a whole; it’s a memorial for King. People don’t come here looking to critique popular representations of civil rights activism—they come to pay tribute to a key figure in American history.

A visit to the King memorial by German doctoral candidate and Fulbright scholar Luvena Kopp highlighted the different expectations placed on the memorial by visitors. Kopp suggests that for her mother and sister, the King memorial fed into a broader narrative of American and civil rights history in the same way that the Jefferson or Lincoln memorials did:

I was much more interested in how the memorial covered, or rather failed to cover, how King was frequently seen as a political agitator. For me as a memorial, it was still part of my broader “American experience,” but in a very different way than it was for my mother and sister.

This conflation of the movement and King’s legacy also proves problematic at other sites such as the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Scottish expatriate Jacob Freedman, visiting from the Carolinas, thought that the connection between King and the museum was as obstructive as it was enlightening:

I think the issue is the layout of the site—everything is geared towards seeing King’s room in its restored state on the second floor. Having that as both the physical and emotional high point of the museum just reaffirms that sense of the movement crumbling with King’s death.

Other institutions have attempted to draw out lesser lights in the movement. At the Newseum in Washington D.C., the exhibit “Make Some Noise: Students and the Civil Rights Movement” focuses on the grassroots student campaign, while another exhibit is routinely updated to chronicle the fiftieth anniversary of multiple civil rights milestones. Senior manager of exhibit development Pattie Rhule notes that these elements—the acknowledgement of the role played by younger generations in the movement and the evolving nature of movement activism—were central to the development of the museum’s exhibits:

We have a lot of students coming through the museum, and we want to emphasize the importance of students to the movement. The Greensboro Four were just teenagers in 1960 . . . we felt that it was important for the exhibit to evolve. The movement wasn’t monolithic—we are excited that part of the exhibit will change over time to highlight the changing nature of the movement.

Media organizations in particular have tuned in to the power of a more innovative approach to civil rights history. “Behind the Civil Rights Act: How It Was Made and What It Means Today,” an interactive online exhibit on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 developed by NPR (, explores the bill with the help of numerous journalists, lawyers, and civil rights activists. Even more dynamic was a live twitter feed called @Todayin1963 developed by Code Switch, an NPR news team that covers race, ethnicity, and culture.  Kat Chow, a Code Switch digital journalist, emphasized that public interaction was a key component of the different projects developed by NPR to commemorate Civil Rights history:

We thought to ourselves: How could we engage readers but also contextualize a really big part of history? I think that sort of framing is generally how I approach projects like this. We wanted to make something that would pull our readers in, so we asked experts who really know civil rights law to help contextualize the Act for us.

Elsewhere, museums dedicated to African American history and culture have grappled with the expectations of visitors, perhaps none more so than the recently opened Houston Museum of African American Culture. Dominic Clay, a curatorial assistant at the museum, noted that preconceived ideas about what kind of exhibits the museum should display has produced split opinions over installations such as “CrossSection: Latino Artists in Texas”:

In hindsight some people didn’t care; didn’t see the relevance. But if you look at the intersections of black and Latino history in Texas, they are so deeply connected. If people aren’t aware of that diversity than they will shut down to it.

Certainly representations of civil rights history at many institutions cyclically reinforce an emphasis on key events or figures and maintain dominant narratives of movement history. This in turn influences what visitors expect or desire to see, which can encourage institutions to display familiar images and dominant icons of movement history. Of course, when specific events are given commemorative preference, a myriad of other events are excluded or ignored. Mark Stribling, a volunteer at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, described a clear example of this trend:

It’s funny how there is a specific civil rights trail people take. If you go outside and turn left you are onto 16th Street and the Baptist Church: the sculpture, the big plaque, and people taking photographs. If you head out and turn right, you are just around the corner from the Gaston Motel, which was bombed in 1963 when SCLC leaders were staying there, but has no plaque or any relevance to the visitors at the church.

As museums focusing on African American history cater towards an increasingly large and racially diverse audience, the question of who visits these sites and their expectations of an institution’s function becomes more important. With the exception of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, every one of the sites where I interviewed was predominantly populated by white visitors. However, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute archivist Laura Anderson contends that the institute is focused more on challenging visitors’ conceptions of the movement and its legacy regardless of their race or background:

We don’t ever really talk about the demographic of our visitors; we talk much more about challenging our visitors and those dominant perceptions of civil rights activism. . . . What particular narrative thread made you want to visit, what propelled you through the door, what image did you have in your mind? We intentionally want to mess up and broaden the typical understanding of the movement that people come here with.

Such sentiments highlight the desire of institutions to move past preconceived and limiting notions of both civil rights and African American history. As the mission statement of the Houston Museum of African American Culture contends, “while our focus is the African American experience, our story in Texas informs and includes not only people of color, but people of all colors” ( The message in the opening film at the National Buffalo Soldiers Museum in Houston is even clearer: “This is not a black museum; this is an American history institution.” It is clear that exhibits, institutions and sites that focus on the commemoration of civil rights history, just like all other forms of public history and commemoration, make carefully mediated decisions over which histories to celebrate and which histories to silence. Similarly, it is apparent through the appeal of such sites to an international audience that civil rights activism in the United States, and its commemoration, has become an increasingly visible part of global representations and understandings of civil rights, civil liberty, and democratic ideals. Perhaps the clearest example seen here is in Washington, D.C., where the opening of multiple new civil rights history exhibits and sites has been matched by a growth in international visitors. Elliot Ferguson, the president and CEO of Destination DC, the city’s convention and tourism corporation, has identified growing international tourism, particularly from China, as a major factor driving the increasing numbers of tourists to the nation’s capital. For those sites in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere the challenge of negotiating the intersections of African American history, civil rights memory, American history, and the expectations of visitors from home and abroad remains a contested and highly complex discussion.

E. James West is a doctoral candidate at the University of Manchester, England. His research focuses on black popular history and print cultures, and his work has been published in a number of journals including the Journal of International Women’s Studies, Callaloo, and Black Diaspora Review.