To mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday in the United States, and to formally launch our new Insightful trivia game, we had the privilege to team up with the museum’s Associate Curator, Ryan M. Jones, who is this week’s Insightful Destination Expert. With 11 years’ experience as the National Civil Rights Museum’s historian and curator, and a regular speaker at conferences, Ryan’s knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement is extensive.
THE NATIONAL CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM
“We wanted to create a space that tells this compelling story, and we wanted it to be at a place of substance and sacredness,” Ryan tells us. “So, the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, almost 55 years ago, is a great place for this story to be told. This is living history.”
“We pride ourselves on being the first museum in the United States that chronicles the key events of the American Civil Rights story,” he says. Often the story of the Black freedom struggle is told from the mid 1950s, he explains. “We wanted to tell this story, a story of discrimination, which includes the transatlantic slave trade to America in the 17th century.”
“The first two galleries tell a longer story because they cover such a large period of time.” Ryan explains, referring to the exhibits ‘A Culture of Resistance’ and ‘The Rise of Jim Crow’.
“These set the context for what occurs and what is referred to as the modern civil rights movement beginning in 1954.” Subsequent galleries discuss events that took place over a much shorter period, from one or two days, through to one or two years. Click here for a full list of the museum’s exhibits.
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“SHOCKING AND SOBERING”
“The floor is a globe of the Eastern Western hemisphere,” Ryan shares. “Filled with information and statistics, you can see the key trade routes and how many enslaved Africans were transported across the world. Then, as you look up you see a quote from the preamble of the United States, which says “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” You then look at face level and see a sculpture of a woman being auctioned off into bondage in the United States.
“Visually, it’s shocking and sobering. We intended to bring that emotion to life as much as we could,” Ryan says. “Audio plays while you’re witnessing this exhibit. You can hear enslaved Africans who are in disarray, you can hear the sounds of the beatings as you visualize the dehumanizing conditions of the slave ships.”
AN IMMERSIVE HISTORY LESSON
“When you walk into the exhibit room, you see public facilities and accommodations that were affected by segregation laws, such as bathrooms, water fountains, schools and restaurants.” Ryan explains. These are set alongside the key themes that come out during this period, including Jump Jim Crow.
“Jump Jim Crow was a minstrel show character used to degrade and humiliate African American life,” Ryan continues. “This led to these newly created segregation laws being referred to as Jim Crow laws, and this entire era spanning from the beginning of the 20th century until the mid 1960s, is referred to as the era of Jim Crow.”
“This was also a period of domestic terrorism, with groups like the Ku Klux Klan that are formed to use violence and intimidation to keep African Americans from having first class citizenship rights.” Ryan says. “The exhibit covers the many different barriers that were broken between the First and Second World Wars, and the rise of celebrities and entertainers using their platforms to speak out against the injustice of civil rights.
“This then brings us to a much more itemized study and education of the modern civil rights movement.”
With so much on offer at the National Civil Rights Museum, we asked Ryan about the innovative ways some of these key moments are brought to life for visitors.
THE YEAR THEY WALKED: MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT 1955 – 1956
“This caused an outrage in the black community in Montgomery because Mrs. Parks was not the first African American woman that year to be arrested,” says Ryan.
“A progressive voice was needed” Ryan tells us. “Someone with new ideas and a new way to look at things. And this is how the 26-year-old pastor, Martin Luther King Jr., comes into this lens of the arena of the civil rights movement.”
Visitors can sit next to a sculpture of Rosa Parks on the bus while listening to admonishing audio from the bus driver telling her to give up her seat and move back, or else she will be arrested. “It puts you in the mind where you’re able to sit in this bus to hear that experience, and then through 381 days you are seeing these women walking and refusing to ride the bus,” Ryan says. “Their campaign was successful because this was the first immediate accomplishment and achievement of the civil rights movement.”
COMBINING ARTIFACTS AND REAL TIME FOOTAGE
“You’re able to see news footage of student activists that were attacked for wanting to sit down at a lunch counter to be served,” Ryan tells us. “I think that the best way to interpret history is to watch how it happened. Today we use our smartphones to interpret what is going on in the country, but in 1960 for the first time, people who were unaccustomed to seeing what racism was like, turn on their television screens and that’s what they see. They see 17-year old’s who have just completed grade school who realized even at that early age, if I don’t go and fight for my constitutional right, we’re going in the wrong direction.”
Visitors then step into the last two remaining rooms of the Lorraine Motel.
THE MODERN CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
“In the spring of 2023, we will be beginning the renovation of another building to tell those much more current stories of the social justice movement that has continued to occur in the United States since April 4, 1968,” Ryan says. “Here we will tell a comprehensive story all of events and people that were involved, and also tell the story of the investigation of Doctor King’s death.”
THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT TODAY, AND WHAT WE CAN DO
“I would be educated and open minded,” he says. “This was America’s history, and in order to reconcile and move from that, we must acknowledge and understand how it happened. I would take my time to realize that these acts of resistance were very courageous and that this is not ancient history.
“As we’re beginning to see some of the same parallels of that era recycled into our current state of America today, we need to remember and understand why they walked in Montgomery. Or why it’s so important to exercise your civic duty of voting because so many people were murdered for trying to register a vote, a right that should have been given to them at birth. Learning those key stories and realizing how you can apply that type of positive social change to your daily life today, that’s how I would approach that.”
In commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday in the USA, this week’s questions are themed around the USA with a couple dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement, so we hope you’ve been reading closely.
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