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VOL. 128 | NO. 122 | Monday, June 24, 2013

Museum Expands Civil Rights Exhibits

By Bill Dries

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From the hold of a slave ship to a segregated classroom to “freedom song karaoke,” the new elements of the renovated National Civil Rights Museum are taking shape.

Construction work on the National Civil Rights Museum continues as new museum exhibits are taking shape.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

Officials of the 22-year-old museum updated the first renovation in the history of the museum built on the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. They told a group of 20 at an annex building next to the construction site Thursday, June 20, to expect more video elements, updated technology and an “immersion” into the civil rights movement.

“The iconic elements will remain,” administration and special projects director Tracy Lauritzen Wright was quick to add, referring to the burned wreckage of a Greyhound bus, a 1950s Montgomery, Ala., bus, a segregated lunch counter with sit-in participants and an early-1960s Birmingham, Ala., streetscape.

The circa-1968 Memphis garbage truck will also remain although the museum’s expansion includes more space for a fuller exhibit on the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike that brought King to Memphis.

There will also be expanded museum areas dealing with the civil rights movement in Mississippi before and after James Meredith’s 1962 integration of the University of Mississippi. That integration exhibit will include a video explaining the significance of the event.

The segregated classroom to be added will be part of an expanded exhibit on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ending racial segregation of schools by law.

What are now wall treatments and text briefly summarizing the black power movement of the mid- to late-1960s will become a more detailed exhibit. It will segue into an exploration of black pride to show a “world in transition,” Wright said of the display of album covers mixed with literature and listening stations for the music and spoken word behind the art and text.

Wright said in planning for the museum’s renovation, citizens said they want more video and archival material and less of the museum’s reliance on text to tell the story of the movement and its origins.

The result is keeping the replica of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. But those walking under the superstructure will feel as if they are in the midst of the violent reaction by police and state troopers to the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

The voting rights act exhibit will include a look at the black elected officials that resulted over several decades including the 2008 election of Barack Obama as president.

The replica of a slave ship is part of an expanded section on the origins of the movement.

The museum’s original technology, in use up to the partial closing of the museum’s main building, included multi-media on laser discs. The technology itself is now hard or impossible to find parts. As the museum undergoes its physical transformation, museum planners are gathering more archival material and recording participants in the movement telling their stories to become part of the museum experience.

The singalong with songs of the early-1960s movement described by Wright as “freedom songs karaoke” is part of a new exhibit that explores demonstrations in Albany, Ga.

The 1961 voter registration campaign in Albany saw authorities there adopt a non-violent reaction and the use of multiple jails to hold demonstrators who were arrested. King began serving a 45-day sentence after he was arrested and refused to pay a fine. The police chief of the town paid King’s fine three days into the sentence and he was released against his wishes.

The onsite construction at the museum and off-site media production are part of the ongoing phase of the museum’s renovation, which began in the fall. The museum with new exhibits is scheduled for an opening in the first quarter of 2014.

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