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Preserving the Past at Civil Rights Museums

Remembering, honoring, educating, shaping the future: These are the hallmarks of today’s civil rights museums. Dotted across the country, each one immerses visitors in somber yet enlightening one-of-a-kind experiences, with treasure troves of artifacts, oral histories and more.

Illuminating this nation’s unfathomable suffering, significant individual and collective achievements, and groundbreaking legislative victories, the following five museums on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail share an unwavering commitment to documenting and shaping the continued struggle for equality and freedom.

On the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, museums embody efforts to preserve all of that past — from slavery through the civil rights movement to current struggles for equal rights — and retell it for the betterment of our future.

Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center

Scottsboro, Alabama

Housed in the former home of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church of Scottsboro — built by former slaves in the late 1800s — the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center shares the story of one of America’s gravest miscarriages of justice.

Here, in 1931, nine boys ages 13 to 19 were falsely accused of a raping two white women on a train traveling through the area. In keeping with the unjust Jim Crow Laws of the South at that time, they were swiftly convicted and sentenced to death by electrocution. For the next seven years, the case dragged through the Alabama and U.S. supreme courts as people nationwide rallied against angry white mobs, the inequitable legal system and incredible odds to reverse the verdict and exonerate the boys. As one of the country’s pivotal civil rights cases, it is believed to be the inspiration behind Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“For the most part, this story is not taught in schools,” said Sheila Washington, founder of the museum. “[However] here in Jackson County, there is some mention of it in the city schools. As the museum and its story have become more well-known, we’ve been getting a lot of tour groups, including college students and lots of people planning family reunions in the area.”

The museum features exhibits, photos and memorabilia of the old church, the nearby railroad station and courthouse trials, plus china, pottery, glass bottles and other artifacts that once belonged to the African Americans who resided in the former shotgun houses behind the church.

National Voting Rights Museum and Institute

Selma, Alabama

After two centuries of oppression and disenfranchisement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave African Americans sweeping voting rights at local and state levels.

Achieving these voting rights was the goal of the 54-mile Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, during which the initial efforts by the peaceful protestors attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge ended in a vicious attack by law enforcement, earning that day the nickname Bloody Sunday.

The story of that historic march, which culminated a few weeks later on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, and the social, political, and cultural challenges and triumphs since that time are chronicled at Selma’s National Voting Rights Museum and Institute.

Here visitors will find a wide array of state-of-the-art exhibits that feature artifacts, memorabilia and other media chronicling America’s long-standing voting rights struggle, particularly as it relates to the civil rights movement throughout the South. This includes the successful reelection defeat, sparked by close to 7,000 newly registered Dallas County African Americans, of Sheriff James Gardner Clark Jr., who was responsible for the violent attacks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Living-history projects, community forums, first-person accounts from volunteer guides who lived through the struggle and special tours are also part of the experience.

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History

Jackson, Mississippi

In the capital city of Jackson, two sister museums help tell the story of the civil rights movement in Mississippi. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History opened in 2017 to coincide with the state’s bicentennial. They are bookends around the turbulent times from slavery to Jim Crow to the civil rights movement and cover overall state history.

“Mississippi’s story is America’s story,” said Cindy Gardner, museum division director for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. “In both museums, we present rich and complex stories that illustrate how our shared past influences our future together. These museums have built credibility with all segments of a nation that is still very divided by race. To inspire conversation and consideration, museum visitors will hear the words of Mississippians from all walks of life as they discuss the progress our state has made since the civil rights era and the challenges that remain.”  

Focusing on the period of 1945 to 1976, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum encompasses eight interactive galleries that highlight the strength and sacrifices of Mississippians who gave their lives to the freedom struggle, with a closer focus on the murders of 14-year-old Emmett Till and civil rights activist and NAACP Mississippi field secretary Medgar Evers.

At the Museum of Mississippi History, visitors are immersed in state-of-the art gallery spaces, captivating oral stories from people who helped shape the state and educational programming that imparts a sense of the full story of Mississippi’s past, both inspiring and grievous.

Together the museums provide an immersive museum experience where visitors can come curious and leave courageous, pointing the way to a future of truth and reconciliation.

International Civil Rights Center and Museum

Greensboro, North Carolina

On February 1, 1960, four Black college students from the Agricultural and Mechanical College for the Colored Race, now North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University — N.C. A&T University, challenged the segregationist establishment by staging a nonviolent sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. This is only the beginning of the story at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.

A National Historical Landmark and International Site of Conscience, the museum is inside a former F.W. Woolworth Co. building and five-and-dime store. And that first sit-in was not a spur-of-the-moment incident.

“It is very important in understanding the civil rights movement and the sit-in movement of that earlier day to realize how strategic the leaders were in their planning and how disciplined they carefully practiced to be in their demonstrations for societal change,” said Will Harris, principal scholar at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. “In Greensboro, even though the initiation of the Woolworth’s lunch-counter sit-ins is celebrated as the brave action of four students, their action was backed by several months of planning with young women colleagues at Bennett College, and they were joined by hundreds of other [Black and white] protesters who persisted over a period of six months before the lunch counter was integrated.”

That persistence sparked the nationwide sit-in movement that encompassed an estimated 70,000 protesters in 14 states. The effort served as a major catalyst in the civil rights movement and resulted in the integration of all the national F.W. Woolworth Co. stores.

Among other elements, visitors will see the original lunch counter seats that, according to Harris, represent not just a simple gathering of a large number of people making demands for things to be different, but also a symbol of progress toward racial inclusion.

National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel

Memphis, Tennessee

Inside the former Lorraine Motel, the National Civil Rights Museum is far more than the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated April 4, 1968; it represents an integral part of the cultural fabric and music history of Memphis rarely told in schools or books.

Originally the Windsor Hotel in 1925, it was renamed 20 years later as the Marquette Hotel. That same year, African American businessman Walter Bailey purchased it and renamed it the Lorraine Hotel, a loving tribute to his wife, Loree, and to the song “Sweet Lorraine” recorded by Nat King Cole. At that time, the hotel also housed the Baileys’ residence and a cafe. The couple added new floors, buildings and rooms to convert it into a motel. During segregation, it was among the few places available to Black travelers and soon became a premier, upscale lodging destination and event venue for prominent musicians, songwriters, sports legends and community leaders, Black and white. King was among the frequent guests.

As one of the premier cultural museums in the country, the museum’s global impact is undeniable.

“The National Civil Rights Museum chronicles the American civil rights movement from 1619 to the present and the world in transition because of it,” said Connie Dyson, marketing communications manager at the museum. “Through interactive and immersive historic and contemporary exhibits from slavery to Black Power, from voting rights to immigration to gun violence, from Jim Crow to Dr. King’s last days at the Lorraine Motel, the museum examines civil and human rights issues then and now. Visitors also get to know some civil rights upstanders whose names and stories they did not know — men and women who recognized something was wrong and made it their life’s work to make it right.”