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U.S. civil rights museum has lessons for CMHR

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Re: Atrocities gallery 'too much' (Nov. 30). I believe the U.S. National Civil Rights Museum located in Memphis, Tenn., has some lessons for us as we complete our human-rights museum.

The NCRM is located in the Lorraine Hotel, one of the few hotels in Memphis that would accept African-Americans in the 1960s. The hotel's exterior still looks like that of any other hotel in a poor neighbourhood in that period. There is only the addition of the perpetual wreath hanging from the balcony in front of Room 306, where Martin Luther King was murdered.

The interior has been gutted and replaced with exhibits on the history of the U.S. civil rights movement, except for Room 306. The modesty of the site has not deterred the literally hundreds of people who visited on an ordinary Friday in July. The simplicity of the site was stunning and contributed to the authenticity of its message.

Our own museum is going to be a signature building. However, it is going to be primarily the content that will determine its place in Canadian and world history as a force for the advancement of human rights. I am reminded of the Milwaukee Art Museum in Wisconsin. While the building itself deserves a visit for its stunning design, the content left me rather indifferent and did not live up to my expectations.

The content of the NCRM, on the contrary, led me to tears with its power, authenticity and message. In spite of the enormity of the prejudice and discrimination against African-Americans, the museum does not portray an ounce of anger, bitterness or hostility toward whites or others. The message is entirely about the incredible achievements of African-Americans in advancing racial equality in spite of personal and societal roadblocks that included unjust laws, intimidation, beatings and the murders of so many.

In many aspects of the struggle, the contributions of whites are acknowledged. At the same time, King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail is displayed in its entirety on one of the walls. It was King's response addressed to moderate white pastors and rabbis who disagreed with the protests. I think the inclusion of King's letter somewhere in our museum would be a valuable addition. Perhaps a section in our museum on a history and discussion of successful and unsuccessful tactics would be useful.

In brief, the tone of the NCRM was, for me, one of its most remarkable achievements. That does not mean I believe the slow pace of change was right. Its message to me was that there were enormous injustices, even state-sanctioned injustices, but change was made by individuals and groups and eventually governments, and this gives us hope more change can be made. And that each of us has a responsibility to acknowledge injustices and contribute to their eradication.

Creating a balance that will acknowledge the injustices yet inspire hope and action from successes in the past is to me the greatest challenge our museum faces.



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 4, 2012 A11

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