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Civil Rights Memorial commemorates 30 years

Carolyn Wells Gee was in bed watching TV with her younger sister when she heard the shot that killed Medgar Evers.

Gee, 71, who still lives in the Jackson, Mississippi, house next door to where the civil rights martyr was slain by Klansmen, was a high school student on June 12, 1963, when the shot rang out late at night.

“I looked out the window and I could see, he [had fallen and] was halfway like on the steps,” she said, adding that Evers’ children were standing there. “There was a lot of blood, and they were just screaming.”

Gee’s father rushed out of his house and fired two shots into the air to scare off the shooter. Her father and another neighbor placed Evers on a mattress, loaded him into a station wagon, and drove him to the hospital rather than wait on an ambulance that would never arrive.

Evers, an NAACP field secretary for Mississippi who organized voter registration efforts and economic boycotts, is one of the martyrs whose names are inscribed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. The Memorial will mark its 30th anniversary beginning Monday.

The Memorial, dedicated by the SPLC on Nov. 5, 1989, honors 40 people killed during the modern civil rights movement, a period framed by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

The martyrs selected for the Memorial fit at least one of three criteria: They were murdered because they were active in the movement; they were killed as acts of terror aimed at intimidating the black community and civil rights activists; or, their deaths, like that of Emmett Till, helped to galvanize the movement by demonstrating the brutality faced by African Americans in the South.

Their sacrifices are not lost on Gee, particularly on Election Day. “I vote all the time,” she said. “You got to try to put people in office who you think are going to help the community. I mean, people died for our right to vote.”

Today, the Memorial provides thousands of visitors each year with a vehicle for education and reflection about the struggles for equality. It is located just yards from the church that King pastored when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott that sparked the movement.

“As we celebrate 30 years of the Civil Rights Memorial, we are reminded that everyday people – including each and every one of us – have the power to bring about social change by standing up and speaking out against injustice,” said Tafeni English, director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center (CRMC). “The 40 names of civil rights martyrs inscribed on the Memorial provide lessons on the courage, commitment and sacrifices these individuals made in the past to bring us where we are today, and they inspire us to continue the march until justice is a reality for everyone in society.”

The commemoration activities will begin at 6 p.m. on Monday, with a panel discussion examining current voting rights issues and the civil rights movement. The discussion will be broadcast on Facebook Live. During the voting rights panel, Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for voting rights at the SPLC, will discuss voting rights in Alabama and the SPLC’s work in the Deep South. 

On Tuesday, Montgomery Mayor-elect Steven Reed, who will become the city’s first black mayor, will deliver an address during a “Day of Remembrance” ceremony. Participants will lay a wreath and flowers on the Memorial to honor the civil rights martyrs. The day’s events, which begin at 11:30 a.m., will include remarks by SPLC Interim President Karen Baynes-Dunning and special performances by the Park Crossing High School Choir under the direction of Darrian Stovall.

During the ceremony, the SPLC will announce the winner of the CRM30 Art Competition, a contest open to all Montgomery public school students in grades nine-12. Participants were asked to create an original drawing, painting, or other two-dimensional medium related to the modern civil rights movement. First-, second- and third-place winners will receive cash awards, and their artwork will be displayed at the event. 

Also in honor of the anniversary, the CRMC, an interpretive center behind the Memorial, will offer free admission to visitors on Tuesday. All anniversary events are free and open to the public.

‘Let us rededicate ourselves to freedom’s fight’

When the Memorial was dedicated three decades ago, 6,000 people gathered to witness the dedication of the nation’s first monument to the martyrs of the movement. Water emerges from the center of a round, black granite table and flows evenly across the top, where the names of martyrs and the history of the movement are inscribed.

Behind the table, water cascades over a curved black granite wall inscribed with a paraphrase from the Bible’s Book of Amos that King quoted on several occasions: “… until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The Memorial was designed by Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

During the dedication ceremony 30 years ago, the crowd heard from Rosa Parks, whose refusal to yield her bus seat to a white passenger in 1955 sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and energized the civil rights movement. Parks reminded the crowd that the march for justice was far from over – a sentiment that continues to undergird the SPLC’s work today.

“It never ends,” Parks said. “But we are living in hope that the future, as we gather for peace, justice, good will and the priceless life of all, that we will not have to mourn the dead but rejoice in the fact that we, as a nation of peace-loving people, will overcome any obstacle against us.”

Since the dedication ceremony in 1989, hundreds of thousands of people have visited the Memorial to pause and reflect on the names of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for justice and equality. Busloads of schoolchildren visit on a regular basis, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis – himself an icon of the movement – leads wreath-laying ceremonies with congressional and civil rights leaders.

The ensuing decades, however, saw the black granite of the Memorial table deteriorate. On Aug. 6, the 54th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the table was replaced. The newly installed table records exactly the same names that were on the previous one. But the names on the new version are more deeply ingrained in the table, making it easier for visitors to see them and run their fingers across them through the water.

This Monday and Tuesday, we invite you to join us in the Civil Rights Memorial’s 30th anniversary events, as we honor those who died for voting and other civil rights. And, as the SPLC’s first president, the late Julian Bond, noted to the crowd that gathered in 1989, it is an opportunity to look to the future and the challenges that remain.

“Let us rededicate ourselves to freedom’s fight,” Bond said. “Let us gather, not in recrimination, but in reconciliation, remembrance and renewed resolve.”