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New Exhibition Tracks Progress of Civil Rights in America

By Lea Terhune | Staff Writer | 09 January 2013
Civil War-era family portrait (Library of Congress)

An unidentified Union soldier poses with his wife and daughters. Many African Americans celebrated emancipation by formalizing their marriage — an act denied under slavery.

Washington — The Smithsonian’s national museums of American History and African American History and Culture have teamed up again to mount a thought-provoking exhibition, Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, and The March on Washington, 1963. The exhibition will run for most of 2013, an important anniversary year for both events.

“You have two pivotal events that are linked together in many ways. They are linked together in this long trajectory of a struggle of people seeking justice, freedom and participation in the American experience,” exhibition co-curator Harry Rubenstein said. The events are linked, he added, because the leaders of the march “took advantage of the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to make their point ever stronger.”

The exhibition entrance features dramatic, life-sized photographic murals. An 1863 crowd of African Americans faces a similar group at the 1963 march, several generations and a few feet distant. The intention of the curators was to “put the two snapshots of the two moments together and let the visitor fill in the in-between,” according to Rubenstein.

Ample stimuli for thought are on display. The Emancipation Proclamation component offers powerful, evocative artifacts: advertisements for slave auctions; shackles that were used to chain child slaves; the Bible of 1831 slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, opened to a page in Revelation; abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s belongings; and the ivory cane admirers presented John Quincy Adams for his ultimately successful opposition to the “gag rule” prohibiting discussion of slavery abolition in Congress.

Lincoln memorabilia include his black suit, frayed at the cuffs from signing hundreds of documents, and the top hat he wore to Ford’s Theatre the night he was assassinated. More important to scholars is a letter in which he declared his support for black suffrage, written to Michael Hahn, newly elected governor of Louisiana after that state applied for readmission to the Union. Lincoln publicly aired this view in his last speech, three days before his assassination.

Photos and artifacts illustrate how a backlash to slavery’s abolition in the Southern states came through the passage of discriminatory, segregationist “Jim Crow” laws and violence against African Americans by such groups as the Ku Klux Klan. Poll taxes barred the poor from voting. Yet abolitionists continued to press for civil rights. New Year’s Day became Emancipation Day and commemorative parades kept the spirit alive.

Videos made in collaboration with the History Channel explain the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington through the words of historians and participants.

The March on Washington element of the exhibition introduces the visitor to the tumult of political action. A continuous video plays clips of speeches and performances given at the march. The curators wished to recreate the sense of being in that diverse crowd of 250,000 people on August 28, 1963.

“When you go to a big demonstration like that … you don’t hear all the speeches, you come and you go,” Rubenstein said. “We wanted to create an environment that somehow made you feel as if you were there. The other thing we really wanted to do with this exhibition is emphasize that it’s a combination of … inspirational leaders; at the same time this is a movement of people.”

By holding the march at the Lincoln Memorial, the leadership significantly linked the event to the Emancipation Proclamation in its centennial anniversary year.

Civil rights leaders on that podium had steered the movement through long and difficult decades of activism. A landmark was the successful, yearlong Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott led by a young Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Washington march. Seasoned activists A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and James L. Farmer Jr., among others, spoke.

The exhibition acknowledges the efforts of pacifist Bayard Rustin, a key civil rights activist and gifted organizer who masterminded the March on Washington. His vital role was long underplayed because he was openly gay and a former member of the Communist Party. A touching relic on display is the gold pocket watch given to Rustin by King, inscribed “From Martin to Bayard for Aug. 28, 1963.”

Civil rights marches were occurring all over the United States. Memorabilia from these and the Washington march — buttons, posters, signs — bring these events to life.

Despite successes, there was still far to go. Testament to that are stained-glass window shards from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four young girls died when the church was bombed two weeks after the march.

By 1964 the civil rights movement had enough momentum to ensure passage by Congress of the Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964. The Voting Rights Act followed in 1965.

Years of organizing culminated in the successful civil rights movement. Similarly, an exhibition of this scope took decades of dedicated collecting. Rubenstein said, “For an institution to pull this off requires generations of curators who had the vision that this material was important.”

Vast crowd with Washington Monument in background (Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress)

A multiracial crowd surrounds the Reflecting Pool from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.