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Mary C. Curtis: Museums Take up Civil Rights, Immigration Issues and Their History

Posted at 10:04 am, June 23rd, 2011
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Do the issues of civil rights and immigration intersect? According to the mission of the Civil Rights Sites of Conscience Network, they do. The group of museums from the Southeast recently met over four days in Charlotte. Emily Zimmern, president and CEO of the host Levine Museum of the New South, lamented “what passes as dialogue” in the immigration debate, words that don’t acknowledge “the long sweep of history.” But she was hopeful that the stand-off can be advanced with informed community engagement. “That’s what museums do.”

At the Levine, that means pairing African-American and Hispanic groups to discuss two museum exhibits: “Courage,” which explores the Carolina roots of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregated schools, and “Para Todos Los Niño,” which chronicles the landmark legal anti-discrimination struggles of Latino families in Southern California almost 10 years before Brown. Another program aimed at high school and college students will ask: “Where is courage needed today?”

The Civil Rights museum group grew from the larger Immigration Sites of Conscience Network, which started with 14 members in 2008 and now numbers 32 and growing. The Southeast, defined for generations in black and white, long had the fewest number of residents born outside the United States, said Zimmern. But in the last two decades, rapid growth in, particularly, the Hispanic population and the nation’s economic setbacks have pulled the region into an increasingly divisive debate.

Representatives from the seven Southeast participating museums brought stories from their communities. With Georgia’s tough new immigration law in mind, Deborah Richardson, representing the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which plans to break ground this year in Atlanta, said, “There are not many places where you can have the dialogue around the facts.” The law, similar to one in Arizona, is being challenged in Federal court.

In Alabama, a law tougher than Arizona’s would require public school teachers to check the immigration status of students and would make it a crime to give a ride to an undocumented immigrant. Priscilla Hancock Cooper, of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, said that a museum could provide a forum to energize the general community around the law.

Some of the participants noted parallels between the language and rules of Jim Crow and the treatment of today’s immigrants. Many nodded when Monica Novoa, of Colorlines and the Applied Research Center, talked with passion about the campaign to “Drop the I-Word,” “illegal,” when describing people. “It denies due process,” she said, and is dehumanizing.

A conference attendee from outside the Southeast spoke of her experience after 9/11. Anan Ameri, director of the Arab American National Museum, said she could feel the rise in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment. But she also saw a curiosity that brought more visitors to her Dearborn, Mich., museum. “People wanted to learn more,” she said. And with that scrutiny came understanding.

“They were surprised to find out how diverse we are.” When they learned of the struggles and triumphs of ordinary families seeking a better life, “people started to see themselves.” Another positive was that “Arab kids, who are always told how bad they are,” had the chance to discover biographies of accomplished Arab Americans and feel pride.

Bamidele Agbasegbe Demerson represented the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, N.C., located in the shell of the F.W. Woolworth where four North Carolina A&T State University students staged a lunch-counter sit-in that launched a movement. Museums provide “learning opportunities for children, and places for reflection for adults,” he said. “We have an opportunity, whether we change minds or not.”

Barbara Lau, of the Pauli Murray Project, part of the Duke Human Rights Center in Durham, N.C., described museums as “places that people already trust to bring them honest and fair information.”

At the four-day launch meeting, the Civil Rights museums heard from experts in Southern history and migration, and hoped to build from the framework of the Levine’s current exhibit “Changing Places: From Black and White to Technicolor.”

The sponsoring organization, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, is a worldwide movement dedicated to remembering past struggles for justice and addressing their contemporary legacies. Members – more than 260 in 47 countries – include the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, the Gulag Museum in Russia and the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa, located in the place where residents were removed in 1966 when the area was declared “white.”

Elizabeth Silkes, executive director of the International Coalition, praised the role of museums as “safe places for the public to gather” to “connect issues of the past with today’s experiences.”

As Zimmern said, suspicion of immigrants is part of American history. Benjamin Franklin railed against Germans, and the notion that immigrants bring health problems and crime is nothing new. It’s time to “hit the pause button” and “reframe the issue,” she said. “”We’ve been there before — and we’ve made it through.”

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