Monday, February 22, 2016



Statues memorialize the black students who integrated the high school in Clinton, Tenn. Many museums around the country feature exhibits that shed light on struggles during the civil rights movement.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education — that school segregation was illegal — opened the door to years of protests against the civil rights movement.
Some progress has been made. Lunch counters are now open, separate water fountains no longer exist and our sports teams and movie screens are alive with black faces.

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But 61 years later, educational and employment opportunities still are biased against blacks. To understand why the battle has been so hard, we need to understand the depth of racist attitudes, and one way to do this is by visiting museums dedicated to recording this fight for equal rights.

At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Ala., one gallery focused on the angry responses of locals to what they saw as an invasion by outsiders who didn’t understand their way of life. Their responses show they didn’t realize how prejudiced they were.

Examples in displays about the process include comments that “blacks were happy — they sang and had a good time until the northern interlopers came in and riled them up” and “blacks were a primitive people who were not fully ready to be integrated.” Particularly nerve-wracking to us were the clips of Southern governors talking about how states should be left to have their own laws, and that the national government had no right to interfere with their traditions.

In Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, one statue depicts a policeman holding the leash of a dog lunging at a black youth. A little farther on the path were three angry dogs leaping out of the sides of two walls. Even though the animals were sculptures, Wayne got cold chills when he walked between them. On the audio recordings available at the park, a woman who had been a young girl at the time talked about how the teenagers built up their nerve to face the dogs, the high pressure water hoses and the beatings.
In the Little Rock Nine Museum in Little Rock, Ark., we saw how the black students were insulted and threatened, kicked and tripped and shoved in the halls and against lockers.

One of the nine, Elizabeth Eckford, took to carrying her notebook in front of her with pins sticking slightly out, which did, after the first attack, avert further frontal attacks. The books of the nine were stolen and ripped. Pencils and spit balls were thrown at them. Ink was squirted on their clothes. Even white students who might have been sympathetic didn’t dare to do anything to protect them for fear the anger would be turned on them.

The Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Ala., put us in the presence of a real bus equipped with amazing technology. We could see and hear through the windows the people on the bus — blacks in back, whites in front. The bus stopped and an image of Rosa Parks stepped on, and we watched the situation develop that led to her arrest. The police were called and we saw her being arrested.
Even when a community accepted school integration, problems arose. In Clinton, Tenn., the white students by and large were very cooperative, especially the student leaders and members of the football team. The black students gained prestige when one of them beat the fastest white runner.

That peace did not last. Outside anti-integration activists led by New Jersey white supremacists John Kasper and Asa Cart arrived to foment violent resistance to integration. In one of the rooms, a screen shows a picture of the original high school that dissolves to then show a mess of bricks and plaster — the result of three massive explosions on Oct. 5, 1958. The school was back in operation — and still integrated — in a building near Oak Ridge a week later.
Our visits to civil rights museums have given us a feeling for the depth of the anger at the attempts to legislate for blacks — a depth that even today prevents equal opportunities for all.



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