My experiences include leading the effort to preserve a civil rights historic site in Columbia, South Carolina, and the publication of a book focused on the fight for survival and transformation of a number of such sites into permanent landmarks. The early stages of the book led me to several phone conversations with Diane Nash, a legacy activist noted for her work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Freedom Riders, and the Alabama and Selma Voting campaigns. The thrill of speaking with a legend who I anticipated would be excited about civil rights sites preservation efforts was quickly tempered by Nash’s more pragmatic attitudes about the ethical and economic conflicts that such projects present.
A ready example of this conflict can be found in Mississippi: during early efforts by then Governor Haley Barbour to develop and promote civil rights tourism, Nash and fellow long-time activist C.T. Vivian published an open letter questioning the development of civil rights tourism and spaces, and asking, ‘Who benefits?’ She argued that the beneficiaries were people outside the communities of African-Americans who moved the civil rights struggle forward, African Americans who largely remain in financial distress. By ‘benefit’, of course, she meant economic benefit.
From Nash’s point of view, with the exception of an elite few, the work in saving these sites does not produce a better income and a better quality of life for the masses in black communities who need jobs and opportunity. What’s more, the revenue from sites that are critical spaces born of the blood and sacrifice of black people is syphoned off to other communities. What does not uplift in a tangible way is not acceptable to Nash.
Along the same lines is the decades – long protest of Jacqueline Smith in Memphis, who believes that the funding spent on the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum should have been used to help the poor around the community through direct services. Her point of view suggests that civil rights hallowed ground could and should do more to promote the political and economic agenda of civil rights struggle, not just the legacy. Her passion for this cause could be clearly seen as equal to the passion of those who have worked for a decade or more to make the sites available to everyone. Smith’s view is that the decision to save and
transform the place where Dr. King’s life ended is actually an injustice, where poor people who
need financial support are on the losing end.
Are communities better off because civil rights battlegrounds have been saved? Does ‘never
forget’ lead to action? Do African American communities benefit when civil rights tourism,
museums, re-enactments or films are created? Should they? If so, in what form should that
benefit come? Would the money be better spent on social, economic uplift and political
programs, as some activists say? These questions were certainly put to me by fellow activists as
I worked on the Simkins House restoration.
The economic factor can often be seen in lack of priority that site preservation has in the
Black community – cultural preservation, yes, but not physical sites, when there are so many
other pressing needs. This prioritization was observed by Manning Marable in his recounting of
efforts to preserve the Audubon Ballroom, in which the dialogue about the proposed demolition
of the building included discussions of construction job opportunities when the new Columbia
University building project got the green light.
Even so, the promise of economic reward, regardless of who benefits, can be an ethical
tightrope. The US Civil Rights Trail, a new collaboration between state tourism agencies that
focuses on promoting those sites to new audiences, was formally launched on January 15, 2018,
Martin Luther King Day. With such titles as ‘Civil Rights Struggles marketed as a Tourism Lure’
(Arkansas Times) and ‘Southern States Try to Cash in on Civil Rights Tourism’ (Alabama Public
Radio), the ethical dilemma is starkly drawn.
With a sense of the critical value of these sacred sites, and the passions they generate in
preservation professionals, academics, community partners and the public, this working group
provides an opportunity to delve into these difficult ethical questions about civil rights sacred
spaces. Despite the passion that many of us have for these spaces and buildings, and our
willingness to expend years to make them a permanent fixture in our communities, there are
many others who express different priorities, especially given the competition for limited project funds. There are perspectives about the capitalistic enterprise that call for us to provide both economic and non-economic value in our work. If we value these sites, pragmatic considerations aside, it is imperative to understand the ethical and economic challenges posed, and to discover, side by side with community partners, economically just models that justify investing resources in civil and human rights sites. These models must:
- Move beyond discussion of rights, justice and equality as *concepts* to facilitation of experiences that constitute political and economic action; and
- Present political and economic action in ways that enlarge and strengthen the quality of life for broader segments of the Black community.