Civil Rights Memorial Center celebrates 10th anniversary

Nearly 300,000 visitors have passed through the doors of the center created by the SPLC to deepen people’s understanding of the civil rights movement.

The civil rights movement can be a challenging lesson to teach young students.

But every year, fourth-graders from across Alabama visit the Civil Rights Memorial Center (CRMC) in Montgomery to learn about the movement and its martyrs.

“They’re so young and the civil rights movement is so distant to them,” said Lecia Brooks, CRMC director. “It’s difficult for them to understand the magnitude of the hate that existed at that time.”

But as the young students tour the center, they learn about the names inscribed on the black granite Civil Rights Memorial outside – 40 men, women and children killed during the movement. Interactive exhibits and a short film bring the past to life by showing how ordinary people stood up to hatred with nonviolence and prevailed.

By the time they reach the Wall of Tolerance, a digital cascade of names rolling down the face of a massive, curved black wall, the students are eager to add their names to the roll call of more than a half million people who have committed themselves to justice, equality and human rights.

“These students are so proud, so committed to the pledge after learning about the movement,” Brooks said. “It’s wonderful to see these young students so interested in taking a stand for civil rights.”

It’s a scene that has played out many times since the Civil Rights Memorial Center opened 10 years ago this month. Nearly 300,000 visitors have passed through the doors of the center, which was created by the SPLC to deepen people’s understanding of the movement and its sacrifices as well as the struggles ahead.

Visitors come from across the world and a variety of backgrounds: social justice advocates, lawmakers, dignitaries, celebrities, students and everyday people simply interested in learning more about the struggle for civil rights. They come to see what has become a reverent place that serves as a reminder of our nation’s highest ideals of justice and equality.

“It has truly been amazing to see the impact of the Civil Rights Memorial Center,” said Brooks, who has served as the center’s director since its opening in 2005. “It can be a strong, emotional experience for people, whether they’re well-versed about the movement or learning about it for the first time.”

The 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march this year as well as the election of President Obama as the nation’s first black president have only increased interest in civil rights history.

This renewed interest is encouraging and may help reverse the findings of an SPLC report, Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States 2011. The report gave most states a failing grade for teaching the movement to students. At the CRMC, those findings only underscore the important role it plays in educating the public about this pivotal period of American history.

“At its heart, the civil rights movement is a story about people,” Brooks said. “It’s about people standing up to injustice and transforming this country for the better. That’s the story we tell at the Civil Rights Memorial Center and it resonates with our visitors.”

Honoring the martyrs

Visitors learn about the 40 martyrs whose names are inscribed in the Civil Rights Memorial, which was commissioned by the Southern Poverty Law Center and dedicated in 1989. The martyrs are individuals who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom during the modern civil rights movement from 1954 to 1968. Some were targeted for death because of their civil rights work. Some were random victims of vigilantes determined to halt the movement. Others were individuals whose murders helped galvanize the movement by demonstrating the brutality that African Americans faced in the Jim Crow South.

They’re people like Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young black man killed by an Alabama state trooper in 1965 as he tried to protect his grandfather and mother from a trooper attack on civil rights marchers in Marion, Alabama. His death led to the historic voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Jackson’s story is one of several explored through the CRMC’s exhibits.

There’s also Emmett Till, the 14-year-old murdered after he reportedly flirted with a white woman at a store in Money, Mississippi. His story is recounted in “Faces in the Water,” the center’s powerful film about the martyrs honored by the memorial.

And there are others.

There’s the display honoring “The Forgotten” – 74 men and women whose deaths during the civil rights movement suggest they were victims of racial violence. Like so many deaths at that time, the circumstances of the slayings have remained largely unknown or incomplete, often because local law enforcement officials simply refused to conduct adequate investigations. The memorial center also has a section dedicated to contemporary struggles for human rights and its victims, a sobering reminder that intolerance and injustice persist in today’s society.

Notable visitors

This history has attracted high-profile visitors, such as Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Kerry Kennedy, Andrew Young and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Music artists Andre 3000 and Erykah Badu escorted their son’s school field trip to the center several years ago. And Mo'ne Davis, the first girl to pitch and earn a win (a shut-out) in the Little League World Series, visited the center in June with her team, the Anderson Monarchs.

Mo'ne Davis Morris Dees
Mo'ne Davis, the first girl to pitch and earn a win (a shut-out) in the Little League World Series, autographs a baseball for SPLC founder Morris Dees

The young trailblazer demonstrated a keen interest in the history at the Civil Rights Memorial Center.

“It’s encouraging that as young people continue to break barriers, they are increasingly interested in the people who came before them and broke barriers,” Brooks said. “It’s important that we, as a country, understand and acknowledge this history.”

The Civil Rights Memorial Center has become more than a stop for students and tourists with a thirst for history. It is woven into the fabric of the community in Montgomery. It has hosted events by authors and advocates committed to social justice. It also served as the backdrop for the SPLC’s 40th anniversary commemoration in 2011.

And it has been the site of somber vigils, such as those for Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Recently, a crowd gathered outside the memorial center to pay tribute to the SPLC’s first president, the late Julian Bond, by scattering rose petals on the Civil Rights Memorial.

It has also been part of key moments in people’s lives. A member of the U.S. Air Force chose to have his promotion ceremony held in front of the memorial center. A same-sex couple recently held a small wedding ceremony one morning in its shadow.

Preparing for the future

As the CRMC marks its first decade, improvements are in the works. The Wall of Tolerance has received upgrades that allow it to honor the martyrs on the anniversary of their deaths by displaying their photos. There are also plans to incorporate more interactive technology into the CRMC, such as a digital map of nearby historic sites as well as touch-screen displays that will highlight the stories of contemporary victims of hate.

Despite these changes, the mission of the CRMC will remain the same: educating the public about the struggle for civil rights and human rights.

“We cannot forget the sacrifices that were made for civil rights,” Brooks said. “We not only honor the martyrs by remembering them, but remind ourselves that as long as there are people willing to take a stand for justice, the march continues.”