Alabama: Beyond the Photographs
by Colleen Morrison
HN 300: Arts, Politics, and Social Justice (Dr. McEvoy-Levy)
10 March 2019
Visual art gave a voice to those persistent in the fight for justice and voting rights during the Civil Rights Movement. The rhetoric and non-violent measures that protesters used caught the attention of photographers who saw beauty in the pain, seeking to help bring the struggle for equality to a national level. Across the country, state laws and regulations oppressed and rejected the full participation of African American minorities in democracy. Civil rights leaders relied on the power of photographs to persuade and motivate, creating a culture of change in the relationship between the camera and politics. Many Americans outside the South opted to outright ignore the segregation of the Jim Crow era but confronted the brutal reality of struggles in photographs. Today, the legacy of the movement lives on in the communities most impacted by discrimination and racial stereotyping. Through reflecting on the photos taken during events of the movement, such as the Selma to Montgomery march and non-violent protest in Birmingham, Alabama, it becomes evident that the struggle for justice persists.
Birmingham, Alabama played a pivotal role in the nationwide call for civil rights. Kelly Ingram Park became the epicenter of the civil rights rallies and demonstrations. Charles Moore, an American photographer, captured the brutal response of law enforcement and officials in the face of African Americans demanding equality. His 1963 photograph shows an African American man being physically attacked by a police dog on a street adjacent to Kelly Ingram Park (Moore, 1963 – Figure 1). In the face of violence, the actions of this young African American man speak volumes to what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others preached of non-violence throughout the movement. Dr. King, Jr. saw no choice between violence and nonviolence, but rather a choice between “nonviolence or nonexistence” (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”). As the world began to hear the voice of Dr. King, these photographs surfaced and touched the hearts of millions of Americans by exposing them to the visibility of injustice. James Stewart, a participant in the nonviolent events in Birmingham, remembers the success of nonviolence: "We were being abused and no one was paying attention…and non-violence proved to be, I think, a much more powerful weapon than violence. We felt victorious, in a sense" (Miller). Today, three blocks from Kelly Ingram Park, Ms. Paulette Roby heads the Civil Rights Activist Committee at the Foot Soldiers Headquarters in honor of the men and women, such as the young boy depicted in the photograph, who fought so diligently for a seat at the table. She too fought and marched in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in 1963. In her office, a mural depicts many scenarios and faces of the Civil Rights movement reminding her and those who visit the fearless courage of the people who paved the way for generations to come, like her uncle. The political and social atmosphere for minorities in America today often eerily reflects that of the one in the 1960’s. Ms. Roby, a firsthand witness to the Civil Rights Movement, carries a beacon of hope for a better future. Moore’s photograph reminds all of the events that took place at Kelly Ingram Park and how they reflect the overall atmosphere of the struggle.
Much like Birmingham and the cultural and historical value it shares, Selma, Alabama too, proved as a notable location during the Civil Rights movement. The Edmund Pettus Bridge connects the two sides of the city over the Mississippi river. On March 26th, 1965, better known as Bloody Sunday, the Edmund Pettus Bridge saw the escalation of violence that dramatically shifted the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement. Photographer Charles Moore, once again, captured the raw emotion of the marchers before they set off towards the Edmund Pettus Bridge in his photo “Freedom Singers” (Moore 1965 – Figure 2). John Lewis, a future congressional representative, and other foot soldiers gather in prayer and song in front of Brown Chapel, in Selma, Alabama. Lewis describes the importance of churches as gathering places as he remembers the events at Selma, "Selma, these churches and these people, gave it everything they had. We wouldn't be where we are today as a nation and as a people (if it) hadn't been for this community." (Jones). Brown Chapel served as the safe haven and meeting place for marchers under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other notable leaders of the movement and a gathering place further intensified by song. Song and singing served as a unifying factor during the Civil Rights Movement, and the songs sung then continue to be sung today as the fight for rights and equality continues. Charles Moore’s image take in 1963 is not a rare sight today in Selma. "Without music, the movement would have been like a bird without wings," as Lewis recalls. The annual jubilee of the Edmund Pettus Bridge crossing invites peoples nationwide to come to Selma to walk in the footsteps of those who risked their lives to cross the bridge and feel the power of these songs and the movement. Songs continue to match the passion of a new generation of activists who use the humble legacy of those captured in Charles Moore’s photograph to propel forward in the face of adversity.
The tilting point of the civil rights movement found place in Montgomery, Alabama. The capital city of Alabama, Montgomery, sits fifty-six miles from Selma, Alabama. From Brown Chapel in Selma, across the Edmund Pettus bridge and all along US-80 highway, the 1965 marchers marched in search of voting rights. As the marchers arrived in Montgomery, William Lovelace captured a photograph of six young children sitting on the porch watching the marchers make their way to the capitol (Lovelace, 1965 – Figure 3). Many of the children who witnessed first-hand the events unravel throughout the movement dedicate their life today to continuing fight for equality and rights. The children born during the height of the movement in places such as Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery were exposed at a young age to the importance of civil and nonviolent protest in the attainment of civil rights. Many of their parents were heavily involved in the events. Eddie Madison, a foot soldier, highlights the importance of her involvement with the movement for her children, “It helped me to raise my children and to teach my children…I tell them they need an education” (Daileda). The early exposure and socialization to the courageous actions of regular citizens and the success of the movement in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 continues to inspire generations to continue this fight. The children captured on the front porch in Lovelace’s photograph symbolize the millions of young girls and boys that never strayed far from the mind of those who marched towards Montgomery. Children played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement, as they held the potential of a better and equal future. Freeman Hrabowski remembers the importance of the marching and the legacy it would leave, “by marching in the movement, children would help end segregation and improve education” (Stewart). Today, many of those children of the movement see the importance of passing the fight for equality onto the next generation.
The photographs that captured the Civil Rights Movements share a story of pain, triumph and hope as they continue to relate to the world today. The events across the country, predominantly in Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery should not be overlooked in understanding the struggle that persists. These locations hold a painfully honest part of the dark history of America but continue ever so dedicated to the passion of equal voting and civil rights for all American citizens. The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, revered as the triumph of the work and dedication of those who marched from Selma to Montgomery should not be seen as the end of the Civil Rights Movement. The oppression and discrimination towards minorities in America is not as blatantly obvious as it was in the photographs captured throughout the movement. Yet, the songs continue to be sung across the Edmund Pettus Bridge by the children of the movement. Until the Edmund Pettus Bridge can serve as a location of remembrance and not inspiration, the struggle persists. The children who watched their mother and father vote for the first time in 1965 face new barriers in their right to vote. The power of the photographs is not in their portrayal of the past, but rather their relevance to the present.
Daileda, Colin. “Foot Soldier Stories: Bloody Sunday Marchers Talk Past and Present.” Mashable. 7 March 2015. Web. 6 March 2019.
Jones, Athena. “Selma 50 Years Later: John Lewis’s Memories of the March.” CNN Politics. 6 March 2015. Web. 6 March 2019.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop; April 3, 1968.” The King Institute, Stanford University, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/ive-been-mountaintop-address-delivered-bishop-charles-mason-temple
Lovelace, William. Children Watch a Black Voting Rights March in Alabama. 1965. Print. Getty Images.
Miller, Michelle. "The Children Who Marched into Civil Rights History." NBC News. 3 May 2013. Web. 6 March 2019.
Moore, Charles. Freedom Singing, Selma, Alabama. 1965. Gelatin silver print. High Museum of Art. Art, Atlanta, Georgia.
Moore, Charles. Policemen Use Police Dogs During Civil Rights Demonstrations, Birmingham Protests. 1963. Gelatin silver, printed later. Steven Kasher Gallery. Art, New York.
Stewart, Denise. “Children’s March 1963: A Defiant Moment.” The Root. 5 January 2013. Web. 6 March 2019.
Museums and Memorials Causing Contention
by Jackie Jordan
HN 300: Art, Politics & Social Justice (Dr McEvoy-Levy)
17 March 2019
While exploring some of the museums and memorials in Alabama dedicated to the history of the Civil Rights Movement, it became clear how politically contentious civil rights issues can be. This fact extends to museums and memorials about countless other topics around the world. By looking at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the Legacy Museum, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, it is evident that many museums and memorials are politically contentious because they force people to face events in history that make them uncomfortable, and because the museums themselves can often have a controversial past.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a memorial created by the Equal Justice Initiative that acknowledges the history of lynchings in the United States. As one travels throughout the memorial, there are many disturbing images seen and horrifying words read. The very first thing experienced in the memorial is a wall that details a brief history of lynching in the United States. Part of this reads “Lynchings in America were not isolated hate crimes committed by rogue vigilantes. Lynchings were targeted racial violence perpetrated to uphold an unjust social order. Lynchings were terrorism.” This is a very powerful and contentious statement. Terrorism is an extremely emotional and intense topic, particularly in 21st century America. Meanwhile, lynching is typically considered and taught as something far in our past, and nearly irrelevant to today’s issues. To make a direct comparison between these issues forces the average person to recognize the reality of the United States’ history with lynching, and allows one to understand the topic in a more modern context. However, since terrorism is such a hot button issue, comparing it to lynching could likely spark intense debates and discomfort. Furthermore, as one continues along this wall containing powerful analyses of lynching, there is a group of statues of slaves. These statues depict people in chains, many of them crying out and struggling to be free, covered in rust or blood from their shackles. Most of these statues have looks of indescribable anguish, pain, and suffering, that bore right into the viewer’s soul. These statues expand upon the facts given along the wall and within the rest of the memorial, and the images stay with the viewer as a reminder of the faces behind the names and dates. The lasting discomfort provoked by these statues could be contentious, for they can be considered graphic and disturbing, but they truly allow for deeper understanding of the rest of the memorial. Further in the memorial there are known reasons for lynchings listed, including annoying a white woman, knocking on a white woman’s door, walking behind a white woman, not allowing a white man to beat him in a fight, and countless more (Equal Justice Initiative). These trivial reasons for murder are heart-wrenching, especially when reminded of the faces of those statues at the entrance of the memorial. As a whole, the memorial has the potential to generate a large amount of discomfort in many people. This can make it politically contentious because more often than not, people fight intensely against the things that make them uncomfortable.
The Legacy Museum is on the site of a former slave warehouse in Montgomery, and it describes the history of African Americans in the United States, “from enslavement to mass incarceration” (“Legacy Museum”). There are many aspects of the museum that can create discomfort in people who visit, as the museum addresses some of the most sensitive topics in our nation’s history. One of the first experiences a visitor to the museum has is seeing and hearing holograms of slaves behind bars. There are two little boys crying out for their mother, a mother calling out for her children, a woman singing a haunting song, and more. This immediately provokes the emotions of the visitor, and created a deep sadness and guilt within me personally. This powerful beginning sets the mood for the next part of the museum, which is a wall covered with information detailing the evolution of the criminalization of African Americans, “from enslavement to mass incarceration” (“Legacy Museum”). On this wall, specific politicians and their policies are critized for their impact on this horrifying succession. This includes the role of the “War on Drugs,” the development of the term “superpredator,” and the politicians that were associated with these terms. These are two very clearly contentious issues relating to the history of African Americans in the United States, and people feel very passionately one way or another about the politicians that started these issues. Seeing someone that has been portrayed as a hero either by family members or popular media get criticized can create a large amount of discomfort in someone. I know that I felt this way when I first saw a video clip of Hillary Clinton using the term “superpredator.” She was someone I had revered for a long time, and having my idealized image of her disproved caused a lot of contention, confusion, and discomfort for me personally. Another way in which the Legacy Museum can be politically contentious because of discomfort is through the powerful statistics about topics like wrongful convictions and children convicted as adults. For example, there are over 10,000 children today housed in adult prisons or jails. Furthermore, there are 3,000 children serving life or life without parole sentences (Equal Justice Initiative). The Legacy Museum is filled with haunting statistics and testimonials that pound the terrifying truth of the criminalization of African Americans in the United States into every visitor. These facts and stories can create deep discomfort in the average person. They can also instill a feeling of extreme guilt in white visitors. This discomfort and guilt can make people want to fight against the museum and the message it is giving off, which leads to contention.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) is politically contentious in a different way than the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum. While it does still address very sensitive topics that can cause discomfort, the USHMM also has a somewhat disputable history. One primary reason for the controversy behind this museum is that many people believe the USHMM makes the tragedy of the Holocaust into a scene from a Hollywood movie. It is argued that the memorial museum Americanized the Holocaust, and has even been compared to a theme park because of how experiential the museum is (Sodaro). Furthermore, the only reason that the USHMM exists is because President Carter wanted the Jewish vote, as there was perceived to be a lack of support by him for Israel (Sodaro). These are only two of the issues that caused controversy around the conception and implementation of the USHMM. Overall, it is clear there is a contentious history behind one of the most popular museums in Washington D.C.
Issues of civil rights can be extremely contentious for a number of reasons. Often, they cause great discomfort in people, as they remind everyone of a time in history most people would rather forget about. The museums and memorials dedicated to these issues can be just as controversial with their pasts. These feelings of contention spark emotions in people that can make them fight against these museums and memorials, and make the sites political. But despite the discomfort and contention, these issues are crucial to face, for learning about our traumatic past is one of the most important things that can help guide us to a more positive future.
“Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.” Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Equal Justice Initiative, museumandmemorial.eji.org/museum.
Sodaro, Amy. Exhibiting Atrocity: Memorial Museums and the Politics of Past Violence. Rutgers University Press, 2018.
“The National Memorial for Peace and Justice.” Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Equal Justice Initiative, museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial.
A Monumental Divide: Finding a Balance between Hurting and Healing
by Corinne Ebner
HN 300: Art, Politics & Social Justice (Dr McEvoy-Levy)
11 March 2019
There is often a cruel irony involved with memorializing tragedy, in that memory is a very divisive subject. Something that is supposed to symbolize healing and community becomes the center of argument, whether over its very existence or the details of its design or both. Who or what should we remember, and why are we remembering them? Who gets to decide what is highlighted and what is left behind? Most importantly, how can we recall tragedy without glorifying it? These and many other questions have all been tackled, with varying degrees of success, by the creators of memorial museums and monuments, including the Holocaust Museum and the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.; Monument Avenue in Richmond; and the many Civil Rights Movement museums and memorials in Selma and Montgomery. Any memorial is, by definition, fraught with tragic history, and this makes it difficult for its creators to appease all interests in a given situation. This is one of the reasons that any “healing” that comes from memorials is only superficial or simply a first step toward future peace; while memorials can increase visibility and knowledge about an event or person and even evoke powerful reactions from visitors, it should not be their goal to heal entire populations of their past afflictions, especially when their existence is so often born of conflict.
One of America’s most famous memorials, the United States Holocaust Museum, neatly encapsulates the struggles around the creation of collective cultural memory. Conceived by the Carter administration and finally opened during Bill Clinton’s presidency, the Holocaust Museum was the site of heavy debate before its design was finalized, with political pressure to emphasize the Jewish victims and create an alignment at odds with the people who wished to commemorate all victims at the center of the discussion. Everyone had different opinions on what was accurate and what would be offensive or problematic, introducing the issue of conflicting memory. Whose memory was actually “true,” and how should it be reflected in the design? Should non-Jewish victims also have a place, even though their home countries were often complicit in systematic genocide? What were the designers “allowed” to do that would acknowledge the respective tragedies but put a positive spin on the U.S.? Here, politics ended up being a huge issue. For the Holocaust Museum, it had a somewhat detrimental effect with the undue emphasis on American military involvement, which for some takes away from the visceral experience of the museum and throws into question the overall accuracy of the exhibits. In the context of healing, it seems almost ridiculous that such a hotly contested space should try to pave over the divides of the past; not only that, but by placing so much weight on the actions of yesteryear, the museum might seem to ignore problems still facing Jewish communities today and the effects that the Holocaust has had on the Israel/Palestine conflict. If the ripple effects of the Holocaust are still going on, how much healing has there really been, and how much has actually been fostered by this memorial?
Some memorials, like Monument Avenue and the many Confederate war memorials in the South, exist simply as sites of political contention in today’s climate. Though they may have been created initially as a way to reinstate Confederate officers as war heroes, thereby recovering some of the pride the South had previously felt, it is difficult to imagine that these monuments bring joy or healing even to those they are supposedly “for.” At this point, they convey too much enmity as implicitly racist figures to be viewed with any impartiality. They offer no ambiguity and no means for reflection or critical thought, and they are inevitably tied to the identities of their defenders, who will now go down in history as neo-Nazis, even if people like the statues for other reasons. In this way, the statues may be said to have “allegiances” to the remnants of the Confederate ideology—namely, racism. Therefore, they are actively hurting more than they are healing, defeating the purpose of any memorial, both because and in perpetuation of controversy that surrounds them.
By contrast, many of the museums and memorials relating to the Civil Rights movement, including the Equal Justice Initiative’s Lynching Memorial and Legacy Museum, do not profess to actually heal the divisions that brought about the reason for their existence. Likewise, as they are not government-sponsored institutions like many of the more famous monuments, there is very little actual political tension that centers around them. While they are by nature sites of tension, they address instead of circumvent or ignore it, and they invite their visitors to reflect on the aftermath of such tensions. Unlike the Holocaust Museum, they also emphasize their relevance in today’s culture; even though lynching can be said to be a thing of the past and legal segregation no longer exists, many of the effects from this history are still ongoing and have a detrimental impact on the Black community. The Equal Justice Initiative stares this reality down, forcing visitors to ponder these long-lasting effects by asking tough questions about today’s society on the way out of the museum.
So, not surprisingly, the main factor in some of the more politically contentious monuments—even those that are not in America—is their sponsorship by the government. With government-funded work, there is always a potential for hidden agendas, and even the most impactful of monuments can fall short due to the atmosphere of tension that surrounds them. In relation to this, it is often problematic to refer to monuments as “healing”—in the long run, what can strategically placed building materials really do for the communities they represent, especially in the context of political divides? Instead, memorials should be seen as catalysts for peace, taking an initiative to start a conversation. With this mindset, the effectiveness of these memorials can be measured in a constructive way, and may have less riding on them that would result in the divisions that render so many superficial.
Sodaro, Amy. Exhibiting Atrocity. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2018. Print.
How can sites of atrocity and oppression or contentious memorials be constructively transformed through art and design?
by Emi Smith
HN 300: Art, Politics & Social Justice (Dr McEvoy-Levy)
March 6, 2019
Walking through The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a transformative experience (EJI 2018). The hauntingly beautiful steel pillars representative of individuals lynched carry enormous weight and impact. The architecture of the space, gradually carrying visitors along a decline the farther into the memorial they walk, leaves guests far underneath the pillars. Looking up, one quite literally feels the gigantic weight of human cruelty and suffering. Furthermore, the simplicity of the site allows one to feel the full impact of one of the darkest corners of human history. Rather than having countless plaques to read or videos to interact with, visitors can openly interpret and truly feel the emotions of the space. The simple and tragically beautiful memorial, combined with a picturesque floral landscape and calming water features, not only provides an opportunity for deeper understanding of the horrors committed against fellow humans, but it is a space for healing and coming to peace with a painful past. Sites of atrocity and oppression, such as the city of Montgomery, Alabama, can be transformed into spaces of understanding and healing through museums and memorials. European concentration camps from Nazi Germany are further examples of the use of a site of atrocity to educate in order to prevent the same evil from occurring again. Contentious memorials, such as Confederate monuments in America, could potentially be redesigned using art to create spaces fueled by understanding rather than division. Art, especially on or near sites of atrocity, has an incomparable healing power.
Montgomery’s proximity to many plantations and slave-owners positioned the city to become the capital of slave trading in Alabama (one of the two largest slave states in the country). The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration is built on the site of a former slave warehouse (EJI 2018). Thousands upon thousands of enslaved black people were imprisoned in warehouses just like the one in Montgomery. In these buildings, slaves were torn apart from their families, never to reunite. They were examined from head to toe by white slave-owners, like people looking at new cars. Oftentimes, slaves had to perform and show-off their best attributes in order to sell themselves, or else they would face a brutal beating later on from their white owner. Black individuals were dehumanized and brutalized in these warehouse spaces. Choosing to build a museum on the same site as one of the most heavily utilized slave warehouses in the country adds an entirely new layer of meaning to the museum. While it is a space for learning and understanding, it is also a space for feeling. It is a place to take a step back and acknowledge the atrocity that occurred literally where one is standing. It adds a sense of reality to the museum because as one is reading about the horrors committed in slave warehouses and against black people throughout history, the ghosts of that atrocity are reading over one’s shoulder. There is an overarching eeriness to the space because visitors cannot be removed from what they are learning about due to the physical site itself.
The museum begins with the mass enslavement of black people and first-person accounts of the horrors of the domestic slave trade. Video accounts of slaves behind bars provide a visceral and realistic look into what individuals went through in warehouses. The museum continues into the mass segregation of blacks, focusing especially on lynchings and Jim Crow laws. Powerful visuals, including jars filled with soil taken from various lynching sites throughout the country, allow visitors to begin to grasp the extent of racial terrorism that occurred throughout the South following the collapse of slavery. The museum ends with a focus on the mass incarceration of the black population. Staggering statistics, such as the probability of ending up in prison being 1 in 3 for black men compared to 1 in 17 for white men, fill this portion of the museum. Mock video phone calls with current prisoners illustrate the inhumanity of the American prison system, as do letters written from prisoners to the Equal Justice Initiative. The structure of the museum, beginning with mass enslavement and ending with present-day mass incarceration, purposefully guides visitors to see and understand the connections between what happened in history to what is occurring right now. One can trace present-day dehumanization and racism to past actions and vice versa. Additionally, the structure of the museum is very open and lets visitors freely flow from exhibit to exhibit, allowing one to further see the connections between all three time periods of enslavement, segregation, and incarceration. The Legacy Museum is an interactive space that educates visitors through individual storytelling and powerful visuals, fostering future conversations around the different manifestations of racism in America. The museum is less so a space of healing and more so a place of education and awareness with the goal of increasing understanding and dialogue around the present-day treatment of black Americans by looking to the past. In contrast, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a place designed for peace-building and healing. However, both the museum and the memorial are built on sites of atrocities that occurred in Montgomery. Because of this, they carry even greater weight and realism for the visitor.
Other sites of atrocity that have been turned into spaces for education and healing are Nazi concentration camps in Europe. The Holocaust resulted in the death of at least 6 million Jewish people, many of them dying by means of torture, starvation, and mass extermination in camps established under Nazi Germany (Holocaust Encyclopedia 2019). Many of these camps, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau, remain open to the public to tour (Amondson 2019). These camps are largely untouched, remaining as ghostly reminders of a horrific past. By maintaining the camps rather than tearing them down, Germany and other European countries such as Poland are forced to acknowledge their dark pasts in order to learn from them. Likewise, visitors can experience a haunting and disturbing tour of the camps to remind them that events such as the Holocaust can never happen again. In contrast to the museum and memorial in Montgomery, these spaces are less so sites of healing or education but more so demanding reminders that such appalling acts must never occur again. By allowing individuals to tour the concentration camps, sites of extreme atrocity, people can walk away reminded of how deep hatred and cruelty can run and how this must forever be prevented.
Because sites of atrocity can be utilized in such creative ways through art and design to become spaces of healing, education, and remembrance; the question is raised as to whether museums and memorials on sites that did not hold atrocity can be as powerful or provocative. For example, does The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have a different impact than visiting the actual concentration camps in Europe? The answer, undeniably, is yes. The impact of the spaces is decidedly different, perhaps not for better or worse, but certainly different. The United States museum attempts to transform the space in Washington D.C. to include artifacts and emulations of the Nazi camps by exhibiting shoes worn by prisoners and bringing in railroad cars and bunks from Auschwitz (Sodaro 2018). However, the memorial museum is placed in a highly American space, the capital city of the country, and is told from an American perspective. Upon entering the museum, the first experience visitors have is of the American liberation of concentration camps. Because the museum is not located even in the same continent as the site of atrocity, the feeling upon entering and exiting the museum is different than that of experiencing walking through a real concentration camp. While the message of remembrance and never again is prominent in both spaces, the haunting presence of the past is absent from the Americanized museum.
Finally, contentious memorials have the opportunity to be turned into spaces of healing and peace-building through art and design. In the American South, many memorials and monuments still exist that honor Confederate generals and ideals (Theobald 2018). This is problematic because of the entrenched racism and division these monuments honor. For many, these monuments symbolize hatred against people of color and support of white supremacy. The issue with their current representation is not merely that they exist, but that they treat those involved in the Confederacy with reverence and awe. Rather than utilizing Confederate memorials as spaces to foster educated dialogue, learning, and growth; they are spaces that promote racist ideals. These monuments should exist as signs of remembrance and never again, however; they must be altered to acknowledge the issues of the past and promote growth from this history. Rather than honor the Confederacy, memorials should question it. They should exhibit the atrocity that the Confederacy symbolized as supporting instead of treating generals with revere. In order to become spaces for healing and peace-building, Confederate memorials must be transformed into sites of learning and growth.
Art and design has a powerful impact on space. It has the ability to transform sites of atrocity and contention into places for education, remembrance, and peace. Sites such as slave warehouses and lynchings that occurred in Montgomery have been altered into museums and memorials that honor victims and acknowledge a painful past in order to understand present injustice. Horrific spaces such as concentration camps in Europe remain open to tours in order to remind both governments and civilians that such evil must never be allowed to happen again. Even spaces that did not host atrocity, such as The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, have devised ways to bring the reality of human cruelty and suffering to the space (although how effective this truly is can be debated). Finally, sites of contention such as Confederate memorials have the opportunity to be altered through art to become sites of healing and understanding. The horrors of the past can be difficult to come to terms with. However, through art and design, these atrocities can be slightly more understandable, slightly easier to foster dialogue around, and slightly more healing. Art reminds us that it is up to us for these evils to never happen again.
Amondsom, Birge. (2019). Holocaust Memorials in Germany. TripSavvy, https://www.tripsavvy.com/holocaust-memorials-in-germany-1520059.
Equal Justice Initiative. (2018). The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. Equal Justice Initiative, https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/museum.
Equal Justice Initiative. (2018). The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Equal Justice Initiative, https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial.
Holocaust Encyclopedia. (2019). Documenting Numbers of Victims of the Holocaust and Nazi Persecution. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/documenting-numbers-of-victims-of- the-holocaust-and-nazi-persecution.
Sodaro, Amy. (2018). Exhibiting Atrocity: Memorial Museums and the Politics of Past Violence. Rutgers University Press.
Theobald, Bill. (2018). Controversial Confederate Statues Remain in U.S. Capitol Despite Being Removed Elsewhere. USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/09/19/confederate-statues-remain-u- s-capitol-despite-opposition/1269270002/.
The power of museums and memorials in reminding viewers that oppression still exists.
by Adrrell Mable
HN 300: Art, Politics & Social Justice (Dr McEvoy-Levy)
March 6, 2019
Education is a powerful tool if used correctly. Education provides the opportunity to raise awareness about the past in efforts to prevent certain things from happening in the future. Education is powerful in changing the lives of others. Although knowledge of history is required of every student, reading and memorizing words off a page fails to provide the emotions one would feel in attendance to a memorial or museum. Whether it be an interactive element, physical demonstration, physical representation, personal testimony, or a work of art; all aid in educating the viewer. Such methods make history more memorable and evoke certain emotions that may not have existed before. Once exposed, these emotions not only stick with one, but they are the driving force needed to bring about change in society. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum are successful in sharing the history of slavery through many interactive elements and physical representations. Most importantly, both sites expose the truth that so many aim to cover up, but indeed, only the truth will change the future.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice serves primarily as a memorial for African Americans who suffered and died during the civil rights movement, but also as a reminder that oppression still exists in society. It begins with a glimpse back into slavery with chains around the necks, feet, and hands of a group of slaves. Immediately, we see that only one piece of clothing is covering the lower private area of each slave. That within itself is symbolic of how their dignity was taken away as they were considered “human property” instead of human beings (The National Memorial for Peace and Justice 2018). They had nothing but the strength of their minds. Each slave displayed a different emotion which was transferred to the viewer, even if they may not have understood the struggle. However, the first slave stood tall with strength. Even though he had nothing on the outside, every part of him on the inside was ready to fight. He portrayed no fear, like the attitudes of activists who risked their lives for change. They knew their price would pay off in the end. Leading up to the lynching memorial, many narratives were placed on the wall to educate on the civil rights movement and how slavery still existed afterwards.
The lynching memorial had an infrastructure that was unique, but successful in raising awareness to viewers. Each stone had a state, county, names, and dates engraved. The stones were arranged in a square with many spaces in between. At first, the stones were planted on the ground, but they soon began to rise, and the ground got steeper as one continued walking. When one got to a certain point, the stones were above their head and the height was very similar to that of an African American being lynched. The viewer had to look up. Overlooking the past was no longer an option. Being surrounded by such atrocities provokes change by forcing viewers to think about the past. Their emotions are developed into new practices that will aim to prevent racial inequality. The inner square of the memorial is line with white flowers. White flowers are significant of rebirth and change, reminding viewers that change is always possible. Even more astounding is the flower garden outside the memorial. One can walk through or sit while absorbing the sweet aroma. A beautiful appearance that emphasizes what could be. The diversity of the flowers is symbolic of society and how we can be all be something beautiful combined if we get past the color of our skin. Similar petitions for change are expressed in the Legacy Museum as the Equal Justice Initiative expounds upon a new type of slavery- mass incarnation.
Each separate section in the Legacy museum reveals a different act of oppression that African Americans experienced in the past and are still experiencing today. Although they are separate in structure, their goal towards viewers is the same. They question the common notion that things have changed for the better, and that equality exists for all members of society. Furthermore, they unmask the truth that society fails to realize: the laws have changed, but oppression still exists in subtle ways by those in higher powers.
The viewer is taken on a journey from enslavement, to mass incarnation, and lastly, to police brutality. Upon entering the museum, the small, dark room consists of different slave cells, each with a hologram of a slave telling their story. The Equal Justice Initiative does an excellent job of capturing the history of the building and provoking an interaction from its’ viewers. The quiet voices of the slaves forces viewers to get up close, look inside, and listen. Similarly, the telephone visitation center surrounding the idea of mass incarnation forces the viewer to listen to the stories of prisoners. Viewers engage by picking up a phone, just as if they were in a prison telephone visitation center, and listening to the prisoners tell their story. The museum’s usage of personal testimony is significant in moving the emotions of viewers as most slaves are innocent, or giver more time than what is appropriate. A deeper analysis of mass incarnation is expounded upon in the video room about the St. Clair prison located in Springville, Alabama. The prison officers were described as “facilitators of a slaughterhouse,” because they neglect to stop the prisoners from killing each other. Many prisoners are in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, or longer than they should be. Officers facilitate in taking away the one thing African Americans have holding them together- community. Although the killing isn’t being done by the officer, it parallels accordingly to slavery times. The master in change, in this case the officer, is permitting and encouraging the death of many innocent African Americans. Slavery has masked itself in a new form, but ultimately still resulting in the oppression of many innocent people. We, as the viewers, are presented with the inevitable truth- oppression will always exist in some form or fashion if we don’t work towards change. Many individuals have advocated for change more recently, but the influence fails to pass on from generation to generation.
Before exiting the museum, we are presented with the legacy of those who risked their lives to get us where we are today. The Legacy Museum contained a bronze room that had three walls lined with people who advocated for change then and now. Not only were they African Americans, but individuals from all ethnicities. The viewer is educated on other ethnicities that are experiencing oppression, not just African Americans. On the fourth wall, a quote by Mary McLeod Bethune is sketched as a call for action. The quote simply says,” If we have the courage and tenacity of our forebears, who stood firmly like a rock against the lash of slavery, we shall find a way to do for our day what they did for theirs” (The Legacy Museum 2018). Above her name was a rectangular mirror box similar to the size of a signature box. Upon reading the quote, the last thing visible to the viewer is both of their feet inside the mirror box. It is significant of their promise to break the cycle of oppression. Standing in a room surrounded by people who fought for change only encourages viewers to fight even harder because they are not alone. It confirms that change is possible; we must continue fighting. Ultimately, we have no excuse.
Both sites expand upon two different ideas of oppression but are equal in their message to the viewer. We cannot stop fighting for what was granted to us at birth- our freedom. The strength established in those who fought in the past still exists today- we just have to find it. We must find our voice in a society where some individuals fail to realize that all people are free, no matter the skin color. It is then, and only then, that we as society will obtain equality and peace.