In America's Deep South, a front seat for Freedom Riders
A disused bus station-turned- museum honors some of those who changed the course of civil rights history.
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"I want them not to forget. It comes down to that," says Kevin Cole, an artist based in Georgia. Mr. Cole donated an installation work to the Freedom Rides Museum depicting neckties – a reference to a "necktie party," or a lynching – and a map of the southern United States, decorated with black-and-white portraits of civil rights leaders. The pieces, dubbed "Colorless Dreams," are a reminder, Cole says. "I hope people will understand what actually occurred, and how far we've come. And how far we have to go."Skip to next paragraph
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Katherine Strause, an artist based in Arkansas, submitted several canvases to the museum, including a painting of the firebombing in Anniston. Ms. Strause says the work is "for all of us, to be reminded of how much we're capable of. I think it's really important, especially now, to revisit the idea of nonviolence," she adds. "Once in a while, these really smart people pop up, and they move society forward. People like this. I actually got to be there at the opening with a lot of the Freedom Riders. And it was such an honor to be a part of this. A small part. Because the museum is something bigger than about my work. It's really about their work."
In this way, the Freedom Rides Museum can be seen as part of a recent surge in memorials to the civil rights pioneers, which began in the early 1990s with the National Civil Rights Museum, in Memphis, Tenn. Since then, a National Voting Rights Museum was built in Selma, Ala.; a Civil Rights Institute went up in Albany, Ga.; and a National Historical Voting Rights Trail has been inaugurated on the long asphalt corridor between Selma and Montgomery. Meanwhile, in St. Augustine, Fla. – another major mecca of the Civil Rights Era – several groups are attempting to raise funds for a 12,000-square-foot Civil Rights Museum.
"There is a really big move afoot – a tremendous interest in getting this kind of commemoration," says Arsenault, the professor of history. Every year, Arsenault leads students on a tour of the South, and "every year," he says, "there is more to see. More monuments, more historical sites." That makes sense, he adds. "So many people today feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the social problems around them, by the state of the world, and they shrug their shoulders, and say, 'Well, what can I do?' And then we see these historical examples. And it inspires us."