The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination occurred just days ago on April 4, 2018. It was, predictably, a big deal. There was no shortage of commemorations, reflections, and acknowledgements. The social media accounts of civil rights museums and black history sites were abuzz with MLK quotes and reminders about the value of non-violent protest and the need to carry on his legacy.
But we’re a year into the Trump presidency - a year into the awakening of so many well-meaning white liberals who mistakenly thought progress was chugging right along just as MLK envisioned. Meanwhile, there is steadily growing frustration among more woke folks about the lack of progress for African Americans in this country. Wounds are reopened each week when a policeman kills another unarmed black person.
Polite and wistful commemorations of King’s life just seem hollow. What’s missing is the anger. Hours after King’s death in 1968, 110 cities erupted into violence. 110 cities! Can you imagine what that must have been like? But so few history organizations explore or validate that anger.
In fact, the very act of preserving objects and stories in museums seems to extract the rage out of them. If a story is represented in a history museum, the chapter is closed. Lessons have been learned, heroes designated, and morals imparted. But history is full of unfinished processes - including the cyclical process of hurt and anger. Millions of unheard voices with frustration passed from generation to generation, simmering beneath the surface.
Consider a scenario that we've all felt. You're upset, hurt, or frustrated about something you've experienced. You vent to a friend or significant other. What you want to hear is, "Wow, I'm sorry. That sucks." But what your confidant offers you is more along the lines of "Well have you tried this solution or that solution?" If you're in an emotional state, you don't want solutions yet. You just want your feelings validated. [Can you tell I've been to therapy?] In many ways, our current treatment of civil rights struggles in museums feels very much like that friend giving you solutions (usually the tools of non-violent civil disobedience) without really making you feel heard.
So let’s not put King’s death on a tidy shelf with a slick label telling us what to think about it. His death was an act of violence and thousands reacted in violence. If we museums don’t dig into the intense frustration -- a frustration that is very much in the present -- then aren’t we ignoring the emotional accuracy of the event? Aren’t we as oblivious as the lawmakers and police departments that continue not to listen?
Ground Zero: Memphis
The event of King’s assassination has been preserved for posterity at the National Museum of Civil Rights (formerly the Lorraine Hotel) in Memphis. The exact spot where blood was shed was turned into an iconic center for non-violence. When I visited some years back and saw the hotel room, with dinner plates frozen in time, I was emotionally moved - in the way that a well-read, white, liberal history professional is moved.
But consider the perspective of a young black visitor coming to the same museum with her class on a field trip, year after year, living with conflicting narratives.
Excerpts from a powerful account by sociologist Dr. Zandria Felice Robinson:
The Museum was added to our annual school field trip rotation alongside trips to the zoo, which, thanks to the miracle of desegregation, we could now go to any day we pleased. . . . I came to expect the funkiest feeling in my heart and stomach when we got to the bus and Rosa Parks and the bus driver and the other sculptural figures were still sitting there in silent history. I hoped Ms. Parks got up in the night after the museum was closed, put her makeup on to bring her color in good, got up from her seat, and marched up the aisle and slapped the dog shit out that bus driver. Every time I returned to the Museum, to that bus, there was no evidence that she had done any such thing.
‘My Mama was alive during them times,’ I whispered not quietly to classmates on those trips, nodding with a practiced gravity. That museum told me them times was over. I wish that museum had told me that these was them times. My Mama Museum told me that these was still them times, and that them times would always be these times as long as we were Black and alive, and probably even after we were Black and dead.
Museums like the National Museum of Civil Rights are valuable for telling stories that have been ignored in the past, but I can see the need for move towards a more raw “Civil Rights Museum 2.0.” I feel the weight of Dr. Robinson’s words as a reminder not to institutionalize the Civil Rights struggle. It’s not over. We, with the power to shape museum content, need to do better at “going there” by purposely making past to present connections, being ready to discuss anger, and asking more than telling.
Tweeting the Riots
So a week before the 50th anniversary of MLK's assassination, I embraced the challenge to “be the change you want to see in the world,” (in this case the museum world). I live-tweeted the 1968 DC race riots over 4 days, moment-by-moment. I chronicled the burning of my hometown, rather than celebrating peace, harmony, and progress. And hoped that the those following would feel the ebbs and flows of emotion - that they would experience a pull between their own current day frustrations with race relations and the codified historical narrative that supports non-violence as the only valid response to oppression.
Since I’m a consultant without a museum to call home (and neither a budget, nor a board of trustees to curtail my efforts) I decided to take this project to Twitter.
In my work, I design live simulations. I love the format’s ability to zoom into moments that can reveal complexity and emotion in events that are normally considered finished chapters. I try to transform formerly settled history into a verb. I wondered if I could take my methods -- my 4 tenets of Peak Experience in museums -- into the world of social media.
I focused on first person accounts that illustrated moments of frustration, exhilaration, sadness, etc.
Be Inclusive of Multiple Perspectives
I included conflicting views and tried to help followers to understand motivations from many sides, without providing neat and tidy conclusions.
Be Thought Provoking
I dug into the psychology of riot behavior and tried to call into question how we remember riots along with reasons people participate in them today.
Design for Participation
I used polls and questions for followers to add their voices.
I found that using Twitter as a tool of engagement did have drawbacks. I didn’t get the thoughtful dialogue that happens with in-person programming. But I found it to be a worthwhile experiment. And while most people probably did not follow the four days of events on Twitter from beginning to end, I felt the hours pass viscerally. On the second day of the riots, when DC officials thought the violence was over, my wife called to ask how my day was going. “Stokely Carmichael is about to tell them to go home and get their guns,” I said. “It’s not over. There’s so much more and no one gets it!”
I come from a peace-loving family. There’s even a Quaker branch on my mom’s side. But I came out of the experience of tweeting the riots with much more empathy for those who choose destruction and violence over civil discourse. If I was affected this way, perhaps others were too. I’m not saying that museums should teach violence. I’m advocating that we teach about violence, and to validate the emotions that arouse it. It may just inspire activists and leaders to campaign for real structural changes that we all need. When museums use the past to help people live in the present day, that’s what makes them truly essential.
Andrea Jones is a consultant specializing in helping museums to create transformative learning experiences. She conducts workshops and designs experiential programs and develops content for museums.