It is modest in size.Â Its message, however, is powerful and timeless.Â The Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Alabama, is a place everyone should visit. Built by the Southern Poverty Law Center and opened in 2005, the Center delves into the struggles and sacrifices of ordinary people in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and calls on visitors to continue to work for justice, equality and human rights.
My daughter Pam and I visited the Center in April while traveling in Alabama and came away deeply moved.Â The Center is located only a few blocks from the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery.Â Standing in front of the Center is the stunning Civil Rights Memorial designed by Maya Lin, known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.Â The Memorial, which was dedicated in 1989, chronicles the events of the Movement between 1954 and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 and honors the 40 individuals martyred during that period.
This verse from the book of Amos quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King in his speeches, including the I have a dream speech, marks the Civil Rights Memorial located in the plaza in front of the Center. Water cascades over the 9 by 40-foot black granite wall while songs of the Movement play in the background. The Memorial is accessible 24 hours a day every day of the week.
Inscribed on a circular granite table fountain in front of the granite wall is a brief history of the Movement and the names of those killed in the struggle.Â Water smoothly flows outward from the center of the circle.
The Civil Rights Memorial traces the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States beginning with the May 17, 1954, ruling by the Supreme Court outlawing school segregation.Â I was ending my junior year in high school when that decision was made.
Pam and I circle the fountain reading the diary of events that began before she was born.
The ripple caused by Pam putting her hand in the water of the Memorial quickly smoothes out as the water flows over the record of events of the Movement during the 1960s.Â I was a new mother in 1963.
We come full circle in the monument with the entry of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.
I heard that Dr. Martin Luther King had been killed while I was driving to an adult education judo class at a local high school.Â I was 31 years old and felt sick to my stomach with grief and a sense of helplessness.
After viewing the Memorial outside, we enter the Center.Â The first room displays photos and newspaper reports relating to the Movement.Â The exhibits are interesting and instructive, but it’s difficult to focus, because we’ve entered with a group of school children, and it’s hard to get close enough to read about the exhibits.Â
We follow the children into the theater where we see a documentary film of this historic era.Â Pulling together the individual stories of the hate, brutality and murders during these crucial years into one narrative and showing the ramifications on the families and on society is potent.Â I feel a deep emotional pain, not just the intellectual pain of a white Northerner that I had felt as I heard about these events as a young woman.Â I choke up and tears blur my eyes.Â When the lights go on, I notice that Pam’s eyes are also watery.Â
We move on to the next room, which is darkened, except for the Wall of Tolerance, a huge screen that flashes the names of the thousands of people from around the world who have pledged to fight injustice. The Wall is a magnificent testament to justice rolling down “like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
The room gives me a pleasant surprise.Â Years ago, I was a member of the Southern Poverty Law Center for several years, but quit when I retired and consolidated my charitable contributions.Â One of the last mailings I received from SPLC solicited contributions for the Wall of Tolerance and noted that a contributor’s name would be added to the Wall.Â I liked the concept of the Wall and sent in a contribution with my signed pledge.Â Standing here in this room watching the names of people who had pledged to work for justice, equality and human rights flow down the screen, I remembered sending in my pledge and wondered if my name had been inscribed on the Wall.Â I entered my last name and zip code into one of the interactive touch panels in front of the Wall to locate my name in the Wall’s registry.Â Yes, it was there!Â I looked up to see my name in large print floating down the screen.Â A few feet to my left, Pam’s name also drifted down the Wall.Â She had used the touch panel to join me and the thousands of others who have pledged, “to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance.”Â To be part of something so true, so good, so grand and so universal is thrilling.Â
The backside of the entrance ticket notes what a signature on the Wall of Tolerance stands for.
I sign the reverse side of the entrance ticket as a reminder of my pledge to work for justice, equality and human rights and keep the ticket as one of my life’s mementos.
Both emotionally drained and uplifted by our experience at the Center, Pam and I exit into a glorious Alabama day.Â As much as has been accomplished by the Movement, the Center’s sign reminds us there is more to be done.
The march for justice, equality and human rights continues.
Dedicated with gratitude to the martyrs in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and to their families and with hope to those who carry their work forward.