Evocative photographs of well-dressed civil rights activists at sit-ins and marches, of protestors beaten and of leaders assassinated convey powerful messages about competing ideals of liberty and equality. What can these visual records tell us if we look into the images more deeply, and if we expand beyond the image to the material evidence that the still images document? What material culture do we see? Why is collecting some of this material evidence so controversial?
Respecting the history includes being sensitive to the local residents and to the communities where conflict occurred. This poses challenges to the collecting effort. Should items be left in impoverished places where benign neglect may contribute to the artifact’s or site’s decay? Or should such reminders of “unpleasantness” be destroyed? Case studies of collecting and preserving well-photographed artifacts at the heart of pivotal rights struggles include the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., collected by the Smithsonian Institution; a house in Little Rock, AR, facing an uncertain future but which housed progressive black reformers with very different approaches to attaining civil rights; and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King was assassinated, now part of the National Civil Rights Museum.
Debra A. Reid joined the Eastern Illinois University faculty in 1999. She teaches the course on material evidence as historic evidence for EIU’s historical administration graduate program. She also researches the history of rural and minority cultures. Publications include articles on reading agricultural artifacts and documenting minority farm ownership. She co-wrote the nomination to place the Harvey C. Ray home in Little Rock, AR, on the list of Arkansas’ Most Endangered Places.