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New museums to shine a spotlight on civil rights era

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ATLANTA » Drive through any state in the Deep South and you will find a monument or a museum dedicated to civil rights.

A visitor can peer into the motel room in Memphis where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was staying when he was shot or stand near the lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where four young men began a sit-in that helped end segregation.

Other institutions are less dramatic, like the Tubman African American Museum in Macon, Ga., where Jim Crow-era toilet fixtures are on display alongside folk art.

But now, a second generation of bigger, bolder museums is about to emerge in a handful of major cities.

Atlanta; Jackson, Miss.; and Charleston, S.C., all have projects in the works. Coupled with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which breaks ground in Washington this month, they represent nearly $750 million worth of plans.

Collectively, they also mark an emerging era of scholarship and interest in the history of both civil rights and African-Americans that is to a younger generation what other major historical events were to their grandparents. "We’re at that stage where the civil rights movement is the new World War II," said Doug Shipman, the chief executive officer for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, a $100 million project that is to break ground in Atlanta this summer and open in 2014.

"It’s a move to the next phase of telling this story," he said.

Although the momentum for the new museums is strong, the recession has shaved the size and shape of some of the projects, and raising money can be a challenge.

John Fleming, the director of the International African American Museum planned for Charleston and a former president of the Association of African American Museums, points to the United States National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Va. That project led by former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, was supposed to open on 38 acres in 2004. The project recently went into bankruptcy, and people who donated money and artifacts are upset.

Although exactly what went wrong is still being debated, Fleming said that in part the project aimed too high and did not adjust as the economy softened. Fleming’s own project began as an $80 million, 70,000-square-foot museum. Now, it is smaller by $30 million and 20,000 square feet.

"Most black museums have difficulty raising funds," Fleming said. "Being truthful, I don’t think people in the African-American community have stepped up to the plate in terms of making significant donations to these projects."

Other directors disagree, saying a generation whose parents or grandparents lived through the 1950s and 1960s are now elected officials and on foundation boards, where they have influence over where cultural dollars are spent.

"The folks who actually participated in the civil rights movement are getting to an age where legacy is important," said Lonnie G. Bunch III, director of the Smithsonian’s African-American museum.

Interpreting history requires the passage of time, and the museums show a maturation of a movement whose seminal events are now a half-century past — enough time, scholars say, for a new interpretation of what they mean.

The election of President Barack Obama, Shipman says, "caps the civil rights era and opens up the next chapter. There is a distance that allows new questions to be asked."

As with the Holocaust and other historical events that eventually moved from painful reality to memorials and then to museums and academic scholarship, the importance of the civil rights movement gets heightened as the last of the participants begin to die.

"In some ways, it’s very much like the old Civil War veterans passing from the scene. Suddenly, the Civil War became more important," said Philip Freelon, the architect who has designed most of the major civil rights museums in the country, including the projects at the Smithsonian and in Atlanta and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, a long-stalled project that finally secured $20 million from the state Legislature last April after Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, spoke in its favor.

For some, however, there is concern that the movement to isolate the era in bigger and better museums helps people avoid meaningful conversations about the day-to-day racism that still expresses itself in everything from interactions at a grocery store to the presidential election.

"All of these efforts are important, but we still have not addressed the issue of race in America, and until we do, that hydra is going to keep raising its ugly head," said Ayisha Cisse-Jeffries, vice president for global affairs and international policy at the African American Islamic Institute.

And then there is the question of attendance. With so many new museums with similar themes, are there enough interested visitors to go around?

"This is part of the larger museum boom globally," Freelon said. "The business of cultural tourism is on the rise as baby boomers get older. They want to go places where history happened. They want to go back home."

Directors say the idea is to create a network of institutions that enhance each other rather than detract. And each place intends to have a specific focus. In Charleston, where fundraising is beginning for an $80 museum dedicated to slavery, visitors will be able to walk the ground where 40 percent of the Africans who would be sold as slaves arrived.

The museum in Washington will be the most prominent of them all. An estimated 4 million visitors are expected to walk through the doors each year. By contrast, the National Museum of American History sees about 5 million people.

Its vast collection will be more archival, and will include the original "Soul Train" sign, the dress that Rosa Parks wore the day she refused to give up her seat on the bus and the gospel hymn book that belonged to Harriet Tubman.

As with many museums and collections dedicated to African-American history — there are more than 200 in the country — the goal is to use black history as a lens on America.

"It is a new day, and the new day means this isn’t a time to remedy prior omissions," Bunch said. "It really is a time to say this is how to understand who we are as Americans."

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