On 17 May 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that racial segregation in public elementary and secondary schools violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional. In 1955 the Supreme Court ordered that desegregation of public schools begin "with all deliberate speed." Since that time, the federal courts have battled with school districts to enforce desegregation orders. The Brown decision also provided the impetus and moral foundation for challenges to segregation in all aspects of American life.
In Montgomery, Alabama, a few blocks from the first "White House" of the Confederacy and the church where Martin Luther King, Jr., preached, the Civil Rights Memorial stands at the entrance to The Southern Poverty Law Center. The plaza was designed as a contemplative area — a place to remember the civil rights movement, to honor those killed during the struggle between 1954 and 1968, to appreciate how far the country has come in its quest for equality, and to consider how far it has to go. The Center asked Maya Ying Lin (born 1959) to create this first memorial to the American civil rights movement after she had completed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Looking at the Sculpture
Visitors to the Civil Rights Memorial read the inscriptions encircling the black granite table.
A large, curved wall is the backdrop for a circular table. Water flows steadily over the black granite wall and table. On the wall are inscribed the biblical words that Martin Luther King, Jr., often quoted: "We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream" (from Amos 5:24, "But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream"). In front of the wall, the table records names of people killed and chronicles the history of the civil rights movement in lines radiating like the hands of a clock. Water emerges from the table's center and flows evenly across the top. The water's coolness is a respite from the Southern heat, and its sound gives the plaza a tranquil, soothing character. Visitors can touch the words and see themselves in the water.
The people identified on the table include people targeted for death because of their civil rights activities; random victims of vigilantes determined to halt the movement; and those who, in the sacrifice of their own lives, brought a new awareness of the civil rights struggle to people all over the world.
Among the forty names is that of Medgar Evers. The black director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) operations in Mississippi, Evers was leading a campaign for integration in Jackson, Mississippi, when a sniper shot and killed him in June 1963 at his home. A charter member of the White Citizens Council boasted of killing Evers to friend and was an avowed white supremacist. He was tried twice in 1964 for Evers' murder, but the all-male, all-white juries deadlocked and failed to reach verdicts. In a third trial in 1994, a racially mixed jury — eight blacks and four whites — found the defendant guilty of murdering Evers.
Interspersed with the victims' names, in chronological order, are events that profoundly influenced, and laws that reflected, the struggle for civil rights in the United States. Moving around the table, viewers can reconstruct the history of the civil rights movement.
1954 17 MAY
Supreme Court outlaws school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education
1955 1 DECEMBER
Rosa Parks arrested for refusing to give up her seat on [a] bus to a white man. Montgomery, Alabama 1955 5 DECEMBER
Montgomery bus boycott begins 1956 13 NOVEMBER
Supreme Court bans segregated seating on Montgomery buses 1957 29 AUGUST
Congress passes first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction 1957 24 SEPTEMBER
President Eisenhower orders federal troops to enforce school desegregation. Little Rock, Arkansas In December 1955 Rosa Parks, a black woman, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. Montgomery's black community, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. organized a successful bus boycott. In November 1956 the Supreme Court declared segregated seating in local transportation unconstitutional. Influenced by the Brown decision and by the increasing activism of blacks, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to ensure equal voting rights and the Civil Rights Act of 1960 to assist blacks in registering and voting.
1960 1 FEBRUARY
Black students stage sit-in at "whites only" lunch counter, Greensboro, North Carolina 1960 5 DECEMBER
Supreme Court outlaws segregation in bus terminals 1961 14 MAY
Freedom riders attacked in Alabama while testing compliance with bus desegregation laws 1962 1 APRIL
Civil rights groups join forces to launch voter registration drive 1962 30 SEPTEMBER
Riots erupt when James Meredith, a black student, enrolls at Ole Miss [University of Mississippi] Early in 1960, black college students began to defy racial segregation, basing their protests on the principles of nonviolent resistance expounded by Martin Luther King, Jr., during the successful Montgomery bus boycott. Begun in Greensboro, North Carolina, on 1 February 1960, sit-ins spread throughout the South. In April 1960 the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed to coordinate efforts of sit-in demonstrators.
In May 1961 the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) began a campaign against segregated bus facilities in the South. An integrated
group known as the "Freedom Riders" traveled by bus from Washington, D.C., headed to New Orleans, to ensure that integration orders were being observed. They were attacked by hostile mobs, with serious incidents in Alabama. More "Freedom Riders" took buses through the South. In September 1961 the Interstate Commerce Commission, responding to a Justice Department request, prohibited segregation on buses and in terminals used in interstate commerce. Railways and airlines desegregated their facilities not long afterward.
The table of the Civil Rights Memorial is low, enabling most viewers to touch the inscriptions and feel the water.
Inscriptions continue: 1963 3 MAY
Birmingham police attack marching children with dogs and firehoses 1963 11 JUNE
Alabama governor stands in school house door to stop university integration 1963 28 AUGUST
250,000 Americans march on Washington for civil rights 1964 23 JANUARY
Poll tax outlawed in federal elections 1964 20 JUNE
Freedom summer brings 1,000 young civil rights volunteers to Mississippi 1964 2 JULY
President Johnson signs Civil Rights Act of 1964 1965 7 MARCH
State troopers beat back marchers at Edmund Pettus Bridge. Selma, Alabama 1965 25 MARCH
Congress passes Voting Rights Act of 1965 1967 2 OCTOBER
Thurgood Marshall sworn in as first black Supreme Court Justice
Police Dogs, 1993, steel, 243.8 cm (8 feet) high, 487.68 cm (16 feet) wide, 304.8 cm (10 feet) long, by James Drake (born 1946). Drake's welded steel sculpture in Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama, depicts the police dogs used to attack civil rights demonstrators.
Blacks increased their demands in 1963, holding mass demonstrations throughout the South. When Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 to lead anti-segregation boycotts and mass marches, Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered his officers to respond with force. The demonstrators were struck with police clubs, bitten by dogs, and knocked down by “torrents of water strong enough to rip bark from trees.” Hundreds were arrested, including King. While in jail, he responded to white ministers who urged him to be more patient by writing his well-known “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.”
On 3 May 1963 thousands of school children were allowed to march with the other civil rights demonstrators. The children walked bravely through the police dogs and firehoses and were arrested. Jailing of children horrified Americans and President John F. Kennedy. Federal mediators dispatched to Birmingham worked out a settlement between King's forces and the city's business community. The victory in Birmingham fueled the civil rights movement, and reform activities spread throughout the United States. On 11 June 1963 President Kennedy delivered a strong statement in support of civil rights and only days later sent a civil rights bill to Congress.
Three months later, a dynamite explosion killed four Sunday School students at Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The bombing and President Kennedy's assassination on 22 November 1963 increased public support for comprehensive civil rights legislation. The following summer, Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregation in public accommodations and ensured the end of Birmingham-style segregation.
The problem of voting rights was addressed a year later on 9 July 1965, when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. The bill outlawed obstacles to black voting and authorized federal officials to enforce fair voting practices. All over the South, thousands of blacks registered to vote the next year. The effect was dramatic. “In 1952, a million southern blacks (20 percent of those eligible) [had] registered to vote. In 1964 the number was 2 million — 40 percent. By 1968, it was 3 million, 60 percent — the same percentage as white voters.”1 1. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: HarperPerennial, 1980), 448.
Civil Rights Memorial: Dedicated 1992
Funding Source: The Southern Poverty Law Center
Location: Montgomery, Alabama - In front of The Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Avenue
Artist: Maya Ying Lin (born 1959)
Medium: Canadian black granite
Dimensions: Table above ground: 82.55 cm (32'/2 inches) high, 365.76 cm (12 feet) diameter. Wall: 304.8 cm (10 feet) high,
11.9 meters (39 feet 2 inches) wide, 238.8 cm (7 feet 10 inches deep.
1. In your judgment, can the Memorial influence the public's attitude toward the civil rights movement? How or how not?
2. Compare Maya Lin's Civil Rights Memorial with figurative monuments to the civil rights movement, for example, James Drake's three welded steel sculptures at the Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama, depicting the fire hosing of marchers, the fierce attack dogs used by Birmingham police, and the children's march, all recalling experiences of demonstrators in the 1963 Birmingham civil rights campaign. Which work would be more effective in influencing the public's attitude? Why?
3. In what ways does the Memorial reveal that the civil rights movement relied on nonviolent means of protest (sit-ins, boycotts, marches, speeches, letters, petitions, lawsuits, and so forth)?
4. What assumptions or values are behind the Memorial's choice of events? Do they give a balanced view of the civil rights struggle? Are there events you would have included or deleted?
5. Within ten years after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that racial segregation must end, most public schools had accomplished desegregation and many others were under federal court orders to desegregate. What type of memorial would celebrate that achievement?
6. In your judgment, what groups in American society today are oppressed or deprived of rights? What kind of art project do you think would be the best way to influence Americans to correct the wrongs?
1. Read To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) , the novel by Harper Lee (born 1926), set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, and representing a microcosm of American society in the 1930s. Write an essay, discussing how the novel reveals prejudice (race,:- class, and sex). Analyze the presence of injustice in the novel, considering how race enters into decisions in the courtroom where, in theory at least, everyone should get a fair trial. Compare events highlighted by the Civil Rights Memorial, analyzing the extent to which the legal system (laws and their enforcement) promoted justice during the period between 1954 and 1968.
2. Assign one event on the Civil Rights Memorial to each participant. Participants should research the event and summarize it on a file card to be shared in a group ceremony.
3. Select one recent instance of injustice in the United States or somewhere else around the world. Using any medium you prefer, design an art project calling attention to the injustice. Will you depict a person, idea, or event? What symbols will you use? How could the work influence the public's attitude?
4. Write a play about one human rights issue. Subjects might include problems encountered by Hispanics, Native Americans, and women to achieve civil rights. Will the play suggest a future plan of action?
5. Construct a time line for important historical events in your community. Interview family members for time lines based on oral histories. Identify at least ten key events and develop an art project incorporating the time line in its design.
Maya Ying Lin (born 1959)
Maya Lin was born in Athens, Ohio, where her parents settled after leaving mainland China when it fell to the communists in 1949. She was a senior at Yale University, taking a seminar in funerary architecture, when her design unanimously won the Vietnam Veterans Memorial competition in 1981. In 1989 The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, commissioned her to design the Civil Rights Memorial. Lin currently works as an architect in New York City.
Further Reading Civil Rights Memorial
For the Memorial, see William Zinsser, “Deeds and deaths that made things better,” Smithsonian, Sept. 1991, 32-40, 42-43. On the civil rights movement, see Rhoda Lois Blumberg, Civil Rights: The 1960s Freedom Struggle (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991); Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the Age of King (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988); Clayborne Carson et al., eds., Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (New York: Penguin, 1987); Vincent Harding, There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981); and Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954-1992 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993).