Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory

Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory

New Bern, NC – INTRO - A new book written in part by an East Carolina University geography professor provides an overview of Civil Rights Memorials in the United States and what they say about the ongoing cause of civil rights in this country. George Olsen has more.

There are any number of memorials to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States from the National Civil Rights Museum at the site of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee to any of the at least 770 streets named for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They've sprung up in historically speaking a relatively short time, though not without some controversy.

"We also noticed these memorials and monuments often provoked debate, politics, political struggle, and we wanted to try and understand how that fit in with how we remember the movement."

Derek Alderman, an associate professor in the Department of Geography at East Carolina University, who, along with Owen Dwyer of Indiana University, co-authored the book "Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory." The book looks at the memorials that have sprung up across the country and what they say about the current status of the civil rights movement.

"We don't just need to pay attention to how the movement is remembered in terms of what stories are told, whose stories are remembered, who is not remembered, but we want to pay attention to where we do the remembering. Are we remembering the movement on courthouse squares? Are we remembering the movement on Main Street? Are we remembering the movement on very central civic spaces? And what we find is even though there's this really big push to remember the movement, large parts of the movement in these memorials are being segregated or marginalized socially and geographically, and that in and of itself speaks to the whole issue of social justice, it speaks to the fact that these memorials to the movement are in fact not just about the past, they are really platforms for carrying on the next stage of the civil rights movement."

Memorializing the movement at a stage when most would say it's still ongoing can create conflicts. Alderman notes a state like Alabama has "built a pretty sizable heritage tourism industry" around the events of the Civil Rights movement. Remembering is good, but there are some concerned about turning the movement into a commodity that assumes the battle for civil rights is a "won cause" and not an ongoing battle.

"A great example of this, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, the site of the Lorraine Hotel where King was assassinated the Lorraine basically was converted to a Civil Rights Museum years ago, and in doing so it plays a critical role in retelling the history of the movement, particularly the impact of King on the city. At the same time, when they converted that hotel into a museum, they also marginalized people who had been living at that motel which had been converted into low-rent housing."

There is also sometimes a conflict in the "why" behind a memorial. Alderman notes the practice of re-naming streets for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Some cities have no problem renaming a street and will simply do it to satisfy some one, particularly African-Americans who want it, but when African-Americans ask their cities to really invest in those streets and actually live up to the ideals of the movement that's when we run into problems. So the memorial itself is not the real power. The power is how the memorial is incorporated into the activities and the philosophies of the community where you find them."

Incorporating these memorials into an existing landscape can produce some jarring juxtapositions as recent history literally crosses over with a past the Civil Rights movement sought to change.

"So when you see for example a King drive intersecting with a Jeff Davis Drive, when you see that it speaks loudly to the fact of the difficulty of bringing some very different memories together in the same space and it also speaks to the difficulty of how do we go about doing that in such a way that's fair that doesn't contradict these memories, and I think it also gets to the whole heart of the idea that all these cities have places of importance to both blacks and whites and then when you try to remember the civil rights movement its happening in cities that their very structure was built around segregation, the structure was built around certain neighborhoods and their own place histories, which makes it potentially difficult."

And those difficulties will likely continue. While some states, such as Alabama with its aforementioned heritage tourism industry, actively recognize the Civil Rights movement, others have been slow to do the same. At the same time, history is being made every day, and those events may in the future and in some cases, the present become part of the ongoing recognition of the Civil Rights movement.

"I think that one thing we know about the way the movement is remembered is we really think there needs to be a stronger link between the activities that happened in the 50s, 60s and even 70s and what we see today, that in fact the movement is not done. In fact, there could clearly be more memorials to the Civil Rights movement to come. As we talk about President Obama, he's often touted and represented as the fulfillment of the civil rights movement. In fact, there are schools and streets being proposed, communities are proposing to re-name for Obama as we speak. In fact there's a school in New York and then a street in Florida that have recently been named for Obama. So we clearly see the idea of remembering the movement doesn't end with what happened in the 50s and 60s. It continues to happen, and so there's actually a lot of room for remembering the movement."

Derek Alderman is an associate professor in the Department of Geography at East Carolina University. He co-wrote along with Owen Dwyer of Indiana University "Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory" published by the University of Georgia Press. I'm George Olsen.