Will The National Mall’s New Museum Tell The Real Civil Rights Story?

Will The National Mall’s New Museum Tell The Real Civil Rights Story?

This week's Charlotte riots demonstrate the importance of narrative—and the new Museum of African American History can shape that narrative for the better.
Craig Colgan
By

I interviewed Georgia Congressman John Lewis in March 2001 for an article about his participation in the 1961 freedom rides into the segregated South.

We sat in his Washington, D.C. office, surrounded by images and mementos from his days as a student leader in the civil rights movement: from Nashville to Birmingham to Selma to the 1963 march on Washington, where he spoke at the main podium before Martin Luther King, Jr. An extraordinary poster of the movement hung on his wall, showing Lewis with two others kneeling in prayer.

Lewis was quiet, laid back, and funny, with no trace of the stern orator he becomes whenever he speaks on the House floor. I had read his terrific memoir, “Walking With the Wind”: it’s a fascinating and near-breathless read. On the way out, I asked him, “So, when are they making the movie?”

He looked at me as if I had asked him when he was going to Mars. But when the Oscar-nominated film “Selma” was released, more people got to learn about John Lewis. It’s quite a story.

I thought about that conversation recently while considering the National Museum of African American History and Culture: the result of nearly 30 years of Lewis’s political pleading and hard work. President Obama officially opens the National Mall’s latest institution on Saturday, and a music festival will take over its side lawn all weekend. Living Colour, a favorite band from the ‘80s, is on the bill Saturday. But I’m guessing the rhetoric from the stage likely won’t be happy and celebratory.

This week, of all weeks, to open such a place.

The Story This Museum Could Tell

At this moment, the need for an institution dedicated to the American-ness of African-American history seems great—but what is the goal of this museum, really? Whose agenda will it advance? Who will win the inevitable political struggles over narrative and emphasis?

Lonnie Bunch III, the museum’s director, told the Washington Post that the goal of the $540 million, 400,000-square-foot bronze palace is “to be that safe space, where you can debate, where you can fight, where you can wrestle, where you can find understanding.”

Debate? About race? These days? And yes, Bunch really did say “safe space.”

It remains to be seen how large a role this progressive influence will have on the museum’s message, programming, and ethos. Did the federal government just build a monument to warmed-over anti-Americanism, disguised as near-holy history, with some video clips of Aretha Franklin and Jackie Robinson sprinkled in? Will Colin Kaepernick, Angela Davis, or Ta Nehisi-Coates be the first speaker to hold forth in the museum’s Oprah Winfrey Theater?

The opening of this museum is an opportunity. The story of the African American civil rights movement is a thrilling, tragic, surprising, scary, adventure-filled, politically complicated tale. Its leaders studied their enemies like Napoleon studied the Prussians. Their moves were strategic and emotional, brilliant and reckless. It’s an adventure every bit as thrilling, terrifying, triumphant, and tragic as any World War II campaign or Cuban missile crisis or hunt for Osama bin Laden. It has a clear right and wrong.

How Progressives Market the Civil Rights Story

But too many Americans are unaware of this, locked out of this story because of how it is currently told. The Black Lives Matter version spins, manipulates, and distorts. The narrative has been stolen.

When the civil rights story is used merely as a political wedge—as a marketing plan to sell bigger government, with victim narratives aimed at electing liberals—then the story becomes an arid, demoralizing, and uninteresting slog. In grad school, they taught us about positioning and branding, and the civil rights movement needs a branding makeover.

This museum could be a good place to start. Galleries are laid out chronologically, and visitors can linger on truly moving artifacts: from the darkness of the Atlantic slave trade to the stunning brightness of Chuck Berry’s enormous red Cadillac, which proudly dominates a floor focused on African American music. Pop culture influences are plentiful, and the Black Lives Matter movement is relegated to a few photos and one video clip—not a large footprint among 4,000 objects on display.

But at other times, it seems the place just cannot help itself. A photo of Anita Hill holds one wall, opposite a Public Enemy display. Her former good friend Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who was the second African American to serve on the court, has no place of honor here.

But perhaps the larger story is that the museum, astonishingly, offers no major items related to Martin Luther King, Jr. This is likely because King’s children have often demanded large licensing fees for the use of King’s likeness, documents, display of his Nobel Peace Prize, etc. The King children have regularly litigated over such disputes, and have even sued each other. These King family disputes flare then dissipate about a couple times a decade, only to re-emerge whenever a major monument is built or film is released. This will be another drama to watch.

‘Let Us Build a New World Together’

Of course, a museum is limited in what it can accomplish, today more than ever. It is not Twitter, a president, or a kneeling NFL player. One potential future for this museum is simply irrelevance. The Jefferson Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, the World War II Memorial, and the National Museum of the American Indian were all born out of various levels of opposition. After they opened, however, the dull roar quickly subsided. They were accepted. Tourists showed up. The New York Times says the restaurant at the American Indian Museum is the best on the Mall. I recommend the bison burger.

I used to work in Charlotte. I love that town. My friends there say many peaceful demonstrators have showed up first each evening, only to be overwhelmed as the sun went down. Where have you heard that before?

But I’ll pass on the cynicism for now. Hope is a very pro-American notion. In the mid-1960s, Lewis lost a political battle within the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He was essentially thrown out in favor of Stokely Carmichael and other radicals, who stood against the tenants of non-violence that directed the civil rights movement in earlier years.

The same choice confronts not just this important new museum, but the country as well. The caption on John Lewis’s SNCC poster from decades ago reads: “Come let us build a new world together.” Change the narrative. Win America.

This week, of all weeks.

Craig Colgan (@craigcolgan) is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

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