The images flow across the screen, black-and-white testament to the ravages and triumphs of the civil rights era seared into our collective memory alongside combustible, contemporary scenes of mass protests against the killings of Black people cut down by racist violence.
At the newly redesigned Civil Rights Memorial Center (CRMC) in Montgomery, Alabama, the powerful scenes splash over walls, fill exhibits and illuminate memorials to the past while affirmatively refusing to flinch from the challenges of our current moment.
The CRMC, built and maintained by the Southern Poverty Law Center, reopened this week, two days before the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth on Jan. 15, 1929. The reopening followed a 21-month closure due to the redesign and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Conceived prior to the pandemic and given added weight and power as the Black Lives Matter movement ricocheted across the country, the renovated CRMC depicts the civil rights movement not as history but as continuum, weaving together the United States’ history of racism with the ongoing activism in pursuit of equity. Like the work of the SPLC itself, it challenges visitors to be catalysts for justice.
“The reopening of the CRMC comes precisely at the right moment as our country grapples with efforts to prevent the teaching of an honest history about race and racism in our schools,” said Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the SPLC. “The CRMC and museums across the country can help fill those gaps. I’m thrilled that the CRMC is reopening to once again help visitors understand the truth about the history of civil rights advocacy in this country.”
Learning has been the point of the CRMC since it opened in 2005 less than a block from the historic church where King served as pastor during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Its new, modernized exhibits reflect the SPLC’s commitment to lifting up the work of activist and community organizers on the front lines of the fight for racial justice today.
From its beginning, the CRMC has served as an interpretive center for the Civil Rights Memorial, which was dedicated in 1989 and created by Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin. Its exhibits have chronicled the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, along with the lives of the civil rights-era martyrs whose names are engraved on the Memorial’s circular, black granite table.
‘Not just history’
With the reinvigoration of the CRMC, the mission to honor history comes alive in the context of a Union whose imperfection has in recent years been brought into increasingly stark relief.
“What is really significant in the redesign – and this is in alignment with our vision at Southern Poverty Law Center – is that there is still so much work to be done,” said Tafeni English, who as director of the CRMC launched and guided the redesign. “This is not just history. Right now, there are individuals working to improve relations in their communities. They want the story of the civil rights movement to never die, but rather to spread understanding of how white supremacy and racism have oppressed people and how movements for social justice across the country have learned from the civil rights movement.”
The Memorial itself, where water emerges and flows evenly across the names of 40 men, women and children killed during the height of the civil rights struggle between 1954 and 1968, is enhanced by a new kiosk overlooking it that explains how Lin came up with the design. There are quotes from King; Julian Bond, who was the SPLC’s first president; and family members of some of those murdered for their roles in the movement. Behind the table, a thin sheet of water flows down a 40-foot-long curved, black granite wall on which is inscribed King’s famous paraphrase of Amos 5:24, used during his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech: “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Inside, a massive, interactive video mural encompasses the entirety of the CRMC’s first gallery. A timeline of images moving across one wall shows the attorneys who argued Brown v. Board of Education. There are images of Rosa Parks, of the Little Rock Nine and piercing photos of the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. In vivid projections, the wall comes alive, telling the story of the civil rights movement through firsthand accounts.
Another gallery displays a poem by acclaimed American writer Kwame Alexander titled “A Civil Community,” compiled from reflections submitted by students, teachers, activists, parents and children from across the country who shared their vision for a better America. Visitors to the exhibit can add their names.
And in a hallway between galleries, a new interactive digital kiosk displays a continually evolving array of headlines highlighting activism around the nation. Visitors can activate the display to learn what civil rights and social justice organizations are doing in real time on issues including environmental justice, gun violence and voting rights. The exhibit also highlights the SPLC’s legal and advocacy work to advance the rights of children.
‘Apathy is Not An Option’
Previously, visitors would gather in the CRMC’s theater to watch a 17-minute narrated film in black and white that reviewed significant events in the civil rights movement. That film has been replaced by a new one, “Apathy is Not An Option.” In vivid color, the film not only chronicles the civil rights movement, but also what is happening today, starting with the wave of social justice activism sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in 2020. Activists from communities around the nation appear in the film.
“The film is intergenerational and it’s relatable,” English said. “One of the things I really wanted to bring out was a heightened awareness that we are still facing the same issues today that they were facing in the 1950s and 1960s. And we want to highlight how activists are working to bring about change, especially in the Deep South. People leave this theater really inspired and understanding why we say Black lives matter, why we have the SPLC Intelligence Project fighting against white supremacy, why we have Learning for Justice, providing anti-bias resources and curriculums to classrooms across the country and grassroots organizers. It helps people to see that together, we have the power to change the landscape of our country.”
The CRMC is part of a rich array of sites, museums, archives and memorials in Montgomery, which is known as the birthplace of both the Confederacy and the civil rights movement. They include the Rosa Parks Museum, which commemorates the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the Freedom Rides Museum; the Parsonage Museum of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where King once lived; and the powerful National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in 2018 on a hilltop overlooking the city to memorialize the more than 800 Black people who lost their lives to lynching and various forms of extrajudicial violence between 1877 and 1950.
Toward a better world
In crafting the new exhibits, SPLC curators worked closely with researchers at Alabama State University (ASU), where the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture houses documents, artifacts and other memorabilia in a rich research repository and research institute supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Janice Franklin, a member of the ASU faculty and project director of the university’s civil rights study center, called Montgomery a model for the study of social justice, civil rights and Black culture. She said she is proud of the collaboration with the SPLC. She is also planning to develop more historical sites, including the birth home of famed musician and activist Nat King Cole.
“Our history has been overlooked,” Franklin said. “If we confront it, if we teach our stories and tell our stories, our young people will understand that they are not moving about in this wilderness alone. When they see mistreatment, they need to understand that this is part of a history of prejudice and mistreatment. Only by understanding history can you be prepared to survive it. And really, we have to confront these continuing injustices as a country, as a whole.”
Using the metaphor of West African weavings, Franklin said, “This dynamic, beautiful story that we are weaving like a kente cloth is, in fact, moving us toward a better world.”
Montgomery Mayor Steven L. Reed, who took office in November 2019 as the first Black mayor in the 200-year history of Alabama’s capital city, echoed that urgency. He places the SPLC at the very heart of the struggle against what he calls the nation’s “tormented history with race.”
“Across the country one only has to look at the data across the board, from health to wealth, to understand that … this is an open-ended struggle,” Reed said. “It is open-ended, it is ongoing, it is continuous.
“The Civil Rights Memorial Center, what it gives us is another pillar that speaks to the struggle for freedom and justice in this country. And the commitment from [the SPLC] to this ensures that whenever we get beyond the COVID pandemic and we’re able to fully display the attractions and the museums that we have in the city, particularly those that deal with the topic of racial progress and the topic of civil rights, it gives me confidence that students, travelers and just those that are life learners will be able to understand more the complexities of our nation now, and certainly of our nation’s past.”
Murals of activists created by The Design Minds, Inc. line the halls of the newly redesigned Civil Rights Memorial Center. (Credit: SPLC)