The Architecture of Civil Rights
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
January 19, 2011 - The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee chronicles the historic struggle of African-Americans to gain full equality under the law based upon the fullness of their prior, though historically unrecognized, dignity as human beings. As a repository of history and a memorial to significant milestones in this struggle, the museum is a treasure. Its effort to chronicle the civil rights movement is breathtaking in its detail and, at times, moving in its presentation. A notable example of the latter is the preservation of the Lorraine Motel rooms overlooking the balcony upon which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died.
Naturally, the museum’s content is political. However, what is striking about the political content is the seismic shift in the grounds for political activism – a shift that perhaps fittingly is embedded in the very architectural structure of the museum itself.
Arguably, much of the civil rights movement in the United States was fueled by a Judeo-Christian understanding of the world. The central argument was simple – one that Dr. King himself articulated in his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Laws must be just. Justice is rooted in the very nature of that God in whose image all human beings (ergo, African-Americans) are made. Thus, laws that fail to recognize the ontological equality of the imago Dei in some are unjust laws. The logic of this impeccable reasoning was symbolically acknowledged, though sadly not enthusiastically received, when Marian Anderson sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” during the August 1963 march on Washington D.C. – the video footage of which can be viewed in the museum.
The seismic shift occurs as one departs the exhibit that preserves Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. After contemplating the tragic death of Dr. King, viewers literally leave the building, cross the street, and continue their tour through an exhibit that explores the legacy of “the Movement” for civil and human rights today. The climax of this exhibit is a short film that ends with a group of ethnically diverse children playing with a ball-sized globe of planet earth. And just in case the imagery itself is too subtle, the narration underscores the message: “The world is in our hands.”
It is perhaps historical hyperbole to claim that death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. uprooted the national civil rights movement from its grounding in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But the psychic rupture created by the museum experience makes it difficult to shake the feeling that when Dr. King died, God was assassinated too. Perhaps this is why the continuing legacy of the struggle for civil and human rights must assume the grammatical burden of capitalization. After all, as Nietzsche noted, if God is dead and we have killed him, “must not we ourselves have to become gods in order to seem worthy of what we have done?”
Both the Gospel and history itself testify to our inability to manage the world while thumbing our nose at its Maker. Politics divorced from a proper acknowledgment of Who has got the world in His hands is no longer about justice, but about mere power. (Notably, the rhetoric of “empowerment” in the museum’s legacy exhibit bears this out.) Thankfully, as Dr. King himself undoubtedly grasped, eschatological hope for justice in the world does not reside in the human will-to-power. If it did, his own death would amount to nothing more than a pointless episode in an endless tide of structural changes in power. But the tide turned when the hands of the One Who holds the world were nailed to a cross in an act of supreme justice that was simultaneously the epitome of powerlessness. Yet only those who are gripped by these hands will themselves share in the “Dream” that Dr. King now enjoys.