Filed Under:

Civil Rights Exhibit Highlights Successes, Work Left To Be Done

Play associated audio

A new exhibit on the campus of Emory University in Atlanta is bringing civil rights leaders together.

Curators have worked for more than three years to catalog roughly 1,000 boxes of historic documents that tell the story of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an early civil rights group first presided over by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

One person who shows up in several of the photographs in the exhibit is Dorothy Cotton, who was head of the SCLC's Citizens Education Program beginning in the 1960s. Cotton, now in her 70s, trained thousands of mostly Southern blacks on how to organize their communities, increase voter registration and stand up for their constitutional rights.

Cotton is still passionate about the movement, and walking through the gallery at Emory's Woodruff library she recognizes early images of civil rights leaders and foot soldiers: Andrew Young, Joseph Lowery, James Orange, Rosa Parks and many unnamed faces who participated in SCLC campaigns. She says many don't understand what went on behind the demonstrations.

"Of course, they couldn't really know about it because it was not something we could publicize," Cotton says. "We would have been shut down [for] teaching all those old black folk that they are citizens and that they have a right to vote and that they can deal with this ... American-style apartheid."

A few audio clips of protests in the exhibit give just a taste of the audio contained in the library's collection. SCLC leaders planned demonstrations just after the first Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, after hundreds of peaceful protesters were brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers in what became known as Bloody Sunday.

One section of the exhibit is devoted to the 1968 Poor People's Campaign in Washington, D.C. Thousands of people set up tents and shacks on the National Mall, in what came to be known as Resurrection City. The goal was to get the country focused on poverty in America.

Without a clear victory, the encampment was dismantled, but civil rights leaders say it did highlight the work that needed to be done. Some even suggest it was a precursor to today's Occupy movement.

The organization struggled to find its mission beyond the civil rights era, when inequality and racism were not so overt. The SCLC centered on human rights issues and campaigned to end apartheid, carried out economic boycotts, lobbied for health care reform and encouraged police departments to hold gun buy-back programs.

"We really hope that the exhibition can be transformative," says Michael Hall, one of the exhibit's curators. "Tackling issues of poverty, psychological health, drug abuse; I mean you name it, they were really trying to protect the whole person.

"So we're really hoping that it helps to guide people currently to think about how we can go about addressing some of these issues," he says.

Cotton says these are people who changed this country and it is an important part of the nation's history.

"It should not be forgotten that change is possible, as painful as it is to remember it," she says. "But change is possible."

The SCLC is still going through changes, including a leadership struggle that split the group into two factions. Some suggest the organization has outlived its mission, but those who put this exhibit together say it documents how much is left to do.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

WAMU 88.5

Barry Meier: "Missing Man"

Nine years ago, former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran while on a mission for the CIA. The story of his secret journey to Iran, the CIA cover-up that followed and efforts to rescue the longest-held U.S. hostage.

NPR

'Invisible Army' Of Immigrant Women Finds Its Voice Through Cooking

Brazilian immigrant Roberta Siao says being both a foreigner and mother made it hard to find work in London. At Mazi Mas, a restaurant that trains and employs immigrants, she found more than a job.
WAMU 88.5

The Fight for D.C.'s Budget Freedom

Last week, a House committee with oversight of the District passed legislation that would block the ability of the Council to spend its own tax dollars.

WAMU 88.5

The U.S. Expands Ties To Vietnam

President Barack Obama lifts the embargo against U.S. arms sales to Vietnam. We discuss what closer ties between the U.S. and Vietnam mean for trade, leverage on human rights and growing concerns over China's military expansion.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.