NY Times: Civil Rights History Finds Heightened Relevance in a Troubled Present

NY Times: Civil Rights History Finds Heightened Relevance in a Troubled Present

Civil rights museums have always tied history lessons to current events. But now there may be more interest than ever in what some refer to as civil rights tourism — as indicated by growing financial support and higher attendance at museums focused on the African-American experience.

Helping drive the trend is the extent to which race and ethnicity have become prime topics in the presidential campaigns, as well as growing public consciousness around issues like voting rights, racial variances in prison sentencing and the Black Lives Matter movement.

A significant number of private and corporate donations helped pay the estimated $270 million construction costs of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

And in Memphis, a recent $27.5 million renovation — primarily paid for by donations from individuals, corporations and foundations — has helped draw more visitors to the National Civil Rights Museum there. Attendance is projected to be 300,000 this year, up from an annual average of about 200,000 in the few years before the renovation was completed in 2014.

The museum, at the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, is more than a piece of history.

Visitors “see the exhibits through the lens of 2016,” said the museum’s president, Terri Lee Freeman. Students in particular, she said, relate the historical photos in the museum to the present-day protests against perceived police bias, among other topics.

“As we talk about the past,” Ms. Freeman said, “we encourage the students to think about how they can make a difference today.”

The regional museums also expect the new Smithsonian museum to buoy attendance at their own institutions.

The various museums draw visitors of all generations.

When Sarah Welch of Seattle visited the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, she was struck by the center’s education initiatives, some of which are led by civil rights activists who protested in the 1960s. As a recent college graduate at that time, Ms. Welch worked on the West Coast for Cesar Chavez, the farm workers’ organizer.

Mia King, a sophomore at Duke University in Durham, N.C., who is part of the university’s Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues, has visited museums in five states focused on African-American culture and civil rights.

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