Traveling Exhibit Commemorates Voices of US Civil Rights Movement - 2004-09-02

The major struggle for civil rights came to a head in the 1950s and early 1960's in the United States. The movement was given a major boost 50 years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, struck down segregation in schools. Then, 40 years ago, the Civil Rights Act became law, wiping away almost all remaining forms of racial discrimination in the United States. To commemorate these events, a bus is now travelling around the country collecting and recording the stories of people who played a role in the epic civil rights movement.

The project is called "Voices of Civil Rights." While much has been written about the major players in that struggle, there are still many accounts by ordinary people that have yet to be documented. And that's the goal of this journey, to build the world's largest archive of personal memories and firsthand accounts of the Civil Rights Movement. When complete, these stories will be housed permanently in the Library of Congress in Washington.

AARP, an organization that represents people over the age of 50, is a major sponsor of the "Voices of Civil Rights" project. Robert Lampkin, its Associate State Director, is heading the effort here in Texas. He says young people, in particular, need to hear these stories so they can understand what the civil rights struggle accomplished. He says even he, as a black man, did not fully realize what that time was like until older people in his own community here in Houston told him stories about a nearby outdoor movie theater that was once for whites only.

"When I was there, and I am 45, when I went to the movie theater it was open to the general public," says Mr. Lampkin. "You talk to some of these individuals and they will tell you how they longed to go to this theater and how their white friends had to put them in the trunks of their cars just to get them into this drive-in theater. That is right here in Houston, right here in my neighborhood. But it also speaks to the progress we have made. We still have a lot of work to do, but we have also made a lot of progress and we have to always talk about accomplishments and the gains we have made."

The people who gathered at a "Voices of Civil Rights" luncheon in Houston represented every ethnic and racial group in the city. One speaker, Jose Maldonado, reminded the audience that, in Texas, there was discrimination against brown-skinned Mexican-Americans as well as blacks before the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

"I used to catch the bus to come to Rosenberg and visit my grandfather, he was still living on the farm," says Mr. Maldonado. "Here I am, a junior high school student and I used to get on the bus and once we passed El Campo I was not sure whether to go to the bathroom in the one that was marked 'colored' or 'white.' Because every community was different in how they looked at Mexican-Americans. That impacted me the rest of my life. It motivated me to be a stereotype breaker. All the stereotypes you hear about Latinos... one of my motivations has been to break those, to make sure that everybody knows that we are as good as anybody else."

One of the people honored at the event was a middle-class white woman named Lisa Lum, who opened her home near Washington D.C. to civil rights marchers who had come from all around the country for the 1963 gathering at the Lincoln Memorial. Ms. Lum says her part in this event was small, but it challenged some of the attitudes of her white neighbors.

"At the end of it, about 10 in the morning when they had all cleared out, a neighbor came over and asked, 'How could you have those people in your house?' I marched her to the tarmac out in front of the house, to the street. We had a little heated conversation. I said, 'It is my house and I will have them if I like and I may have them here again tonight.' Of course, they had all dispersed by that night. So that was my little march for civil rights. I asserted myself with this lady," says Ms. Lum.

Lisa Lum, who later lived in various other parts of the South before settling in Houston, says she believes much of the civil rights movement was about taking a simple clear stand against people she describes as "bullies." She says most white people did not feel comfortable with segregation, but they went along with it until the courage of a few strong leaders forced a change.

The "Voices of Civil Rights" bus tour began August 3 and will continue criss-crossing the nation until October 16. In all, the bus will have visited 22 states and 35 cities before bringing back its treasure trove of stories to the Library of Congress.

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