Opening Our Eyes to a Harsh World: My Experience at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights

I’d never been to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights museum before. In fact, I’d never even heard of it before taking the field trip there for our class. Going into it, I didn’t really have any expectations. I knew it would be an inspiring, eye-opening experience, and that’s exactly what it was. The first thing you see when walking into the museum is a large mural on the wall of an extended hand, motifs of various social movements posed behind it. Immediately, you get an idea of what you’re in for: Themes of resistance, victory, loss, hatred, and love that altogether encompass America’s civil and human rights history.

The lobby of the museum

As you enter the exhibit hall, you immediately get a picture of what you’re going to experience for the rest of your time there. On two opposite sides of the corridor are “white” and “black” signs, pictures of people of the designated race behind them. Right away, we can see the division of races that defined the American Civil Rights movement. The most powerful part of this particular exhibit, in my opinion, was the lunch counter simulation. People are asked to put on a pair of headphones, place their hands atop a lunch counter, and listen for nearly 2 minutes to what a person of color would have heard during the lunch counter sit ins in the early 1960s. There are threats of violence, belligerent people getting close to you, jostling your chair, and general commotion that ended with sirens. It was difficult and scary to sit through for a white person, so I can’t even begin to imagine what the black activists of the time had to go through in order to attain simple rights they deserved. Through the use of a fully immersive experience, we’re able to get just a glimpse of how hard and unforgiving it was to be of color during the American civil rights period. I think the use of kinesthetic rhetoric is always very effective, especially when attempting to comprehend something so harsh. Here is a video of people’s reaction to the lunch counter simulation. In the words of one woman, “It’s terrifying.”

The lunch counter simulation

Something else I noticed as I made my way through the museum was how many stories I hadn’t heard of. For example, I never knew about the four little girls that died when the church in Alabama was bombed. They hid in the basement and ended up being killed by debris and rubble as it fell after the attack. A few other members of the class said the same thing: There were a bunch of stories they hadn’t heard, learning them only through going to the museum. To me, personally, that says something about not only our schooling, but also our society in general. There are things that are either too “taboo” or too brutal for people to talk about. But that does not mean that we should not talk about them. Sometimes, the only way to address things is to be exposed to the cruelty of the world. Only then can we understand just how bad things are and how much we need to change them. Below is the picture of the installation featuring the four young girls killed at the church, and the names many people (like me) may have not heard before: Denise, Cynthia, Addie, and Carole.   

The exhibit featuring the story of the four young girls killed at the church bombing in Alabama

Though a large focus of the museum was the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, there was also an emphasis on human rights in general. Some of my favorite installations featured throughout were part of the AIDS Quilt (pictured below), interactive exhibits that detailed China’s censorship problem, and examples of everyday products that took slave labor to manufacture. Although these exhibits and features were equally important, I think what stuck out to me the most was the Civil Rights part of the museum. As a white person, it’s not easy for me to comprehend what it’s like to be oppressed. I’ve never been excluded for my race, and I’m lucky to admit that. I always want to be able to understand what black people, Indian people, Asian people, etc., go through so that I don’t ever do something that might accidentally insult, hurt, or offend anyone else. I think people like me, who aren’t oppressed and have never been, should go to the museum in order to comprehend how awful it has been for people that aren’t like us, separated and tortured simply because of their skin color.

A section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the largest piece of community folk art in the world (as of 2016)

Rhetorically speaking, I think a large part of the museum’s lasting impact is through pathos and kinesthetic rhetoric (if there is such a thing, or term for what I’m trying to imply). Being able to interact with the exhibits and hear what people during the Civil Rights movement heard – it just cements the experience within the audience’s brain because it evokes an emotional reaction. It did for me, anyway. I highly recommend the National Center for Civil and Human Rights for everyone, but only if you’re willing to have your eyes opened to just how harsh humanity can be.

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