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It seems odd, even bizarre, that a history of brutal oppression and violence against a whole race of people should be presented as a tourist attraction, and perhaps even more bizarre that it should be a successful strategy.
That is precisely what’s happening in many Southern cities in the United States as Americans show a new willingness to confront their own past and come to terms with it. John Bishop explains.
The museums and other displays about the civil rights struggle are attracting record numbers of Americans in the Deep South, the home of slavery, segregation, the suppression of rights for African Americans, and strong, often violent, resistance to change.
“Everyone wants to know about it now,” the young black ticket seller told me at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. That’s a big change, she said, from even ten years ago. And it’s also good business for rundown towns like Montgomery. New hotels and other facilities are being built on the back of the surge in tourists.
I have been absorbed by the civil rights struggle, as a young man I saw on black and white television James Meredith, a black ex-serviceman, being blocked from enrolling at the University of Mississippi. State governor Ross Barnett, an avowed segregationist, stood in the doorway of the registry building and told him he could not enter. That was in September 1962. Meredith was later enrolled by court order, the first person of colour allowed entry. There was a riot in which two people were killed and more than 300 injured as whites, angry at having a black man in “their” university, battled federal and state police.
I’d been to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis in 2014. It’s built around the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was staying the night in April 1968 that he was killed by James Earl Ray, a white negro-hater who fired from across the street at King as he stood on the first-floor balcony of his motel room.
The museum tells of slavery, but also of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. It was sparked by Rosa Parks, of the Freedom Riders, groups of black and white students who rode interstate buses to provoke a court ruling about de-segregation. The buses were attacked – one was firebombed – and the riders beaten. This was just one of the many civil rights campaigns, led by Dr King and others.
On this trip I went to Memphis again, and then to the scenes of many of the battles in the civil rights struggle: Nashville, Birmingham, and Montgomery in Alabama, and Jackson in Mississippi. From Memphis I went on bus and train journeys, from 90 minutes to five hours long, to the other cities. It’s not practical to fly and I did not wish to drive alone. I visited over a dozen sites and seven museums in five states, but there is a lot more. The Civil Rights Trail, with more than a hundred locations across 15 states, is promoted by the tourist organisations of the various states involved.
In the South, after the loss in the Civil War, slavery was replaced by segregation as a way of affirming white supremacy. From the 1870s to the 1960s whites and “coloureds” had separate facilities at train and bus stations, sat in different parts of the buses and trains, ate at separate counters in restaurants, went to different schools, and in most states could not legally marry each other, live together, play together, or even be buried in the same cemetery.
And the system was all legal, sanctioned and ratified by the Supreme Court of the United States in the 1890s, and enforced in practice by violence including false arrests, beatings, and lynching. Amendments to the US Constitution enacted after the Civil War ending slavery and giving equal rights to African Americans were simply ignored and never enforced in the South. Quite the contrary; it was about maintaining white supremacy. As a local saying goes, “In the South no one questioned white supremacy any more than a fish thinks about the wetness of the water.” The law was made by whites; they were the police, the judges and the jailors. Among these people were also the Ku Klux Klan, white men robed in white sheets and hoods, who set burning crosses on the front lawns of those said to have transgressed, and shooting, beating and lynching at will.
Now the Legacy Museum and the associated National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which documents lynching across all states in the USA, are serious draw cards to the town of Montgomery, the state capital of Alabama.
The civil rights struggle was never just marches and sit-ins. Lives were lost. “Ten sticks of dynamite” was the headline in the Birmingham News of 16 September 1963, reporting the murder of four black girls at the 16th Baptist Church. KKK sympathiser Robert Chambliss was eventually convicted of murder in 1977 and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Klansman Ray Killen organised the killing of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in January 1964. Killen was convicted only in 2005 (of manslaughter) for organising the killings.
Black rights activist Medgar Evers was shot in the back in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi, shortly after midnight on June 12, 1963. An all-white jury deadlocked in the two murder trials of Byron de la Beckwith, but he was eventually convicted of Evers’ murder in 1994.
In Montgomery, the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice are the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, headed by a white lawyer called Bryan Stevenson who campaigns against racial injustice in the judicial system.
The museum’s displays link slavery to the Civil War, lynching, segregation and civil rights, and tie these histories to current controversies over police shootings of black people and the mass incarceration of African American men.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice documents over four thousand lynchings of African Americans between 1880 and 1940. The names are etched onto long sheets of copper, which hang from the ceiling of a large open-sided structure, and are repeated on horizontal sheets outside. The descriptions are brief. Example: “Seven blacks were lynched near Screamer, Alabama, in 1888 for drinking from a white man’s well.” Or “Stephen Sasser was lynched in 1884 in Early County, Georgia, for living with a white woman.” And, “Bud Spears was lynched in Lauderdale County, Mississippi, in 1888 for protesting the recent lynching of another black man.”
The New York Times reported in May, “Since they opened in April 2018, the monument and museum are responsible for attracting 400,000 more visitors to Montgomery and selling 107,000 more hotel rooms in 2018 than the year before, according to city figures.” Birmingham also reports a similar revival; and Jackson Mississippi has also felt the same effect, although not as strongly.
The path to reconciliation with one’s history is never an easy one. Think Northern Ireland, South Africa after apartheid, Australia with the aboriginal people, New Zealand with the Māori. All our histories demonstrate that reconciliation is slow, painful, controversial, expensive, and difficult.
After years of denial and refusal to even look at itself, America is finally making the effort to confront this difficult aspect of its history.