Civil Rights, African-American History Museums Take Center Stage

The increase in museum projects dedicated to civil rights and African-American history signals the emergence of an era of scholarship and interest in both that is to a younger generation what other major historical events were to their grandparents, the New York Times reports.

With museum projects under way in Atlanta, Charleston, Washington, D.C., and Jackson, Mississippi, and the generation that sparked the civil rights movement passing from the scene, some say the interest in recent African-American history is only natural. "We're at that stage where the civil rights movement is the new World War II," said Doug Shipman, CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. "It's a move to the next phase of telling this story." Others, however, are concerned that by isolating the period in museums, it will be easier for people to avoid having productive discussions about racism and discrimination in America.

Directors of the new museums are confident their institutions will succeed, telling the Times that they aim to create a network of museums that complement rather than compete with each other. NCCHR, for example, is working to link the civil rights movement to the struggle for human rights globally, exploring, among other things, how Dr. Martin Luther King's speeches helped fuel last year's Arab Spring uprisings. And the planned International African American Museum in Charleston will showcase the ground where nearly half the Africans sold into slavery first arrived.

Still, with so many museums nearing completion and more on the drawing board — and with fundraising in the post-recession environment more challenging than ever — some fear there won't be sufficient interest from the public to sustain them all. That argument strikes some as beside the point. "These museums throughout the South are really a sea change," said William Ferris, the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "In Mississippi, to see a major civil rights museum is heartening in every sense."

Kim Severson. "New Museums to Shine a Spotlight on Civil Rights Era." New York Times 02/19/2012.