Wabash Blogs Immersion 2009: Expressive Culture

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Gary James ’10 - During spring break, my classmates and I have traced the steps of the civil rights movement from Selma, Alabama to Memphis, Tennessee. We have marched the Edmund Pettus Bridge with civil rights leaders. We have visited museums, which chronicle the civil rights era and events. We have traced the steps of  a movement decades-long, following the same steps of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Abernathy, and Rosa Parks. We visited King’s house in Montgomery which was bombed while his family was inside. We could still see the crater on the porch. We visited various churches, including the one King, for a time, called home. At the Rosa Parks Musuem, I realized how much of a movement the civil rights decades were. They coordinated their efforts like a campaign, and the unity of the members of the movement was essential.
            In Memphis, the last stop on our long journey, we traced King’s last steps during his short but full life. We visited the National Civil Rights Museum, which is made from the Lorraine Hotel, where King was assassinated in 1968 in room 306. We museum follows the progress and setbacks of African-Americans since they arrived in the Americas. It was an appropriate cap on a long and educational trip.
            Not only was the trip educational because of its descriptions of the civil rights era, but because of its use of primary resources as relevance to rhetorical studies. I was moved most by the video, photographs, and documents, which depict all the positive and negative aspects of the civil rights movements. I was appalled and perplexed by an interview of some citizens of Birmingham, Alabama who were asked about prejudice in their city. They responded by recounting all the good things that had been done for African-Americans. These good things included being civilized by their captors. It was incredible, but seeing and hearing it was what left an impression.
            At the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Birmingham, I saw visual elements that I would describe as rhetorical. On the outside of the Center, there is a memorial with dates on it made by the same person who made the Vietnam memorial. It obstructs one’s path to the entrance of the center. It forces itself on visitors, acting almost like segregation protestors. On the inside, the exhibits function as symbolic action, enlisting visitors in the cause of the South Poverty Law Center, which locates and litigates against hate groups. One of my favorite parts of the center is a room, which asks for people’s names. When you enter it, it asks you if you are committed to fighting hate and supporting equality. If you agree, it adds your name to a long list of others. The names randomly appear on a large black screen. It functions both as an aesthetically pleasing and ideologically persuasive exhibit.
            Our trip though the American South had a profound affect on us. We heard about some of these events from general history, but the reality of struggle and sacrifice and success of the civil rights movement and tactics and patience and strength is something that should be seen by one’s own eyes. It makes a difference.