Civil Rights History Finds Heightened Relevance in a Troubled Present


Civil rights museums have always tied history lessons to current events. But now there may be more interest than ever in what some refer to as civil rights tourism — as indicated by growing financial support and higher attendance at museums focused on the African-American experience.

Helping drive the trend is the extent to which race and ethnicity have become prime topics in the presidential campaigns, as well as growing public consciousness around issues like voting rights, racial variances in prison sentencing and the Black Lives Matter movement.

A significant number of private and corporate donations helped pay the estimated $270 million construction costs of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

And in Memphis, a recent $27.5 million renovation — primarily paid for by donations from individuals, corporations and foundations — has helped draw more visitors to the National Civil Rights Museum there. Attendance is projected to be 300,000 this year, up from an annual average of about 200,000 in the few years before the renovation was completed in 2014.

The museum, at the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, is more than a piece of history.

Visitors “see the exhibits through the lens of 2016,” said the museum’s president, Terri Lee Freeman. Students in particular, she said, relate the historical photos in the museum to the present-day protests against perceived police bias, among other topics.

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Site of sit-ins in 1960, the original Woolworth lunch counter as displayed at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, N.C.

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International Civil Rights Center & Museum

“As we talk about the past,” Ms. Freeman said, “we encourage the students to think about how they can make a difference today.”

The Greensboro museum opened in 2010, using tax credits provided by the federal government to create public-private partnerships. It is ranked No. 1 on a list of 65 Greensboro attractions on the travel review site TripAdvisor.

Mr. Swaine says the museum’s popularity has had a broader economic impact on the city, as its visitors spend money at nearby restaurants, shops and hotels.

And the recent episode with the Trump campaign, which was covered extensively by local and national news media, helped spur new contributions to the museum.

The campaign had asked Mr. Swaine’s staff to close the museum for five hours on Sept. 20, to film Mr. Trump touring the exhibits. The museum said it could arrange a private tour for the candidate but declined to close the center to the public.

Afterward, Mr. Swaine said, the museum’s staff became the targets of insulting and even threatening phone calls and social media posts. One visitor appeared at the museum with an open-carry gun — legal in North Carolina — prompting the museum to declare itself a gun-free zone.

Media coverage of those developments spurred contributions from around the country, mostly in the range of $25 to $100, Mr. Swaine said. “We’ve had more than 100 new donors contribute to the museum in the last few weeks,” he said.

Mr. Trump’s campaign team in North Carolina has declined to comment on the incident.

Elsewhere, but also primarily in the South, a number of other new and planned museums offer opportunities to explore connections between civil rights history and contemporary concerns.

The Center for Civil and Human Rights opened in Atlanta in 2014 on land donated by the Coca-Cola Company near other major tourist attractions like the aquarium.

The Equal Justice Initiative is raising money to open a museum in Montgomery, Ala., in 2017 that will explore African-American history “from enslavement to mass incarceration.” It also plans to build a memorial on the site to the more than 4,000 African-Americans who were lynched in the United States.

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The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Credit
Chris Carmichael for The New York Times

The International African American Museum in Charleston, S.C., is scheduled to open in the next few years, as is the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. Both are to be financed by government grants and private donations.

Additional civil-rights-focused monuments and museums can be found on government websites. Alabama’s tourism portal offers to visitors a three-day self-guided tour through civil rights sites in Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery. The National Park Service lists important civil rights sites on its website.

The regional museums also expect the new Smithsonian museum to buoy attendance at their own institutions.

Visits to the Smithsonian will “inspire people to learn more about what happened in their own cities,” said Andrea L. Taylor, chief executive of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama.

The Birmingham institute, which has about 150,000 visitors a year and is undergoing a renovation to be completed next year, has among its exhibits the cell door behind which Dr. King wrote “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”

“We use history as a point of departure to examine current issues and draw relevant lessons,” Ms. Taylor said.

For the last 10 years the Birmingham institute has held an annual joint conference with the Federal Bureau of Investigation — which had a wary relationship with Dr. King in his day — on race, community and law enforcement. The number of attendees has been growing, and this year for the first time, the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, came to speak.

The various museums draw visitors of all generations.

When Sarah Welch of Seattle visited the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, she was struck by the center’s education initiatives, some of which are led by civil rights activists who protested in the 1960s. As a recent college graduate at that time, Ms. Welch worked on the West Coast for Cesar Chavez, the farm workers’ organizer.

“The museum rekindled ideas I had, to get involved again,” said Ms. Welch, who added that she intended to find a way to participate in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Mia King, a sophomore at Duke University in Durham, N.C., who is part of the university’s Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues, has visited museums in five states focused on African-American culture and civil rights.

The institutions, she said, “create more informed citizens who can have the important conversations, stand up for everyone’s rights, and vote.”

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