A quartet of fascinating museums shines a light on the struggle by African-Americans to be treated equally by their fellow countrymen; a struggle carried out not only by civil rights activists, but by sports men and women and musicians too. By Steve Madgwick
When you think of the American Civil Rights Movement, who do you think of? Martin Luther King Jr.? Definitely. The ‘first lady of civil rights’, Rosa Parks, standing up for herself by sitting down on that Alabama bus way back in 1955. Surely!
Alongside the likes of Dr King and Parks and a generation of courageous civil disobeyers were less prominent freedom fighters who gradually dragged the debate into the mainstream, musicians and sports men and women who permeated and then helped define American culture as we know it today.
The likes of Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis linearly tell the grand narrative, but for more intimate snapshots there’s a handful of small museums that document the struggles and triumphs of African Americans from other angles. Welcome to Middle America’s ‘accidental’ civil rights museums.
Few things have united Americans like baseball except, of course, if you were African-American back in the mid-20th Century and earlier. During the Roaring ’20s, US professional baseball was distinctly two-speed: the all-white stars of the Major League and the grafting talents of the Negro National League. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum shines an intense light on the underrated and almost-lost-to-history latter.
Long before Jackie Robinson became the first African-American athlete to appear in US pro sport (in 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers), all-black teams such as the Kansas City Monarchs and Cleveland Browns were touring the eastern United States. Black and white spectators would sit side by side at these matches, a rare thing indeed in a fiercely segregated country. The museum is set up around a faux baseball diamond and set behind chicken wire to show how African-American Major League fans were segregated.
Best of the best? Life-size bronze statues around the diamond represent the museum’s Hall of Fame. Arguably Buck Leonard was the best ever player in the competition. Sneaking a fast ball past him was like sneaking a sunrise past a rooster, so the story goes.
Calling the late Muhammad Ali just a boxer is like calling water just a drink. In his native Louisville, no one matches The Champ’s God-like stature. The modernist Muhammad Ali Center is like a temple for a man who was more outspoken about civil rights than most, a strong role model for African-Americans when they most needed him. Famously, he often backed up those fighting words with definitive actions like changing his ‘slave name’ from Cassius Clay.
The center’s displays outline his six-principle philosophy, his truly extensive humanitarian timeline, plus his lesser-known pursuits, such as a love of drawing (he sketched scenes from his Joe Louis bouts).
You versus Ali: How fast was The Louisville Lip in the ring? You can try your luck by shadow boxing against Ali. First, get a virtual boxing lesson from his daughter Laila in the ring.
One simple wall tells the story of just how much African-American music affected the way the world played and listened to music in the past century. An exhibition at St Louis’s National Blues Museum holds a cross-section of influential rock, country and rap artists who specifically attribute their musical style to the humble pre-civil rights vanguards.
It features the 20th Century’s most popular artists: Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones et al. As BB King said, blues music “is a mother tree with many branches”. The museum (opened in 2016) plots the timeline of the genre from the early 1800s, on its journey from south to north, giving rare but rightful space to the influential women of blues and a special spot, naturally, for hometown heavyweight Chuck Berry.
How to get the blues: For those with (or even without) a musical bone in their bodies, you can compose your own song from scratch at the museum, adding elements at ‘stations’ along the way. You can also play along with a virtual ‘jug band’, using the spoons or washboard. Catch some top-shelf local acts at the Lumiere Place Legends room on ‘Soulful Sundays’.
Few forms of culture accelerated the civil rights movement the way America’s ‘classical music’ did. The jazz scene was relatively unsegregated compared with the rest of the deeply divided country, with artists such as John Coltrane and Nina Simone making bold musical statements provoking change. So why is the American Jazz Museum not located in the genre’s birthplace, New Orleans?
As they say in Missouri, jazz was indeed born in New Orleans, but it grew up in Kansas City, which was a Mafia-controlled city, less affected by Prohibition, letting the alcohol and, presumably, the good times and music flow more freely.
Located in 18th and Vine district (the only place in the city where African-Americans could own a business or eat out during segregation) has hosted all the jazz legends in its time, from Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington to Ella Fitzgerald and the pre-eminent Louis Armstrong. The small museum is ‘ears on’ with performances most nights and feel-free-to-join-in jam sessions.
Signs of the times: Don’t miss the collection of neon signs from historic jazz bars of the area, some so old that you can hear the ‘click’ as they flash, just like in the movies.
You might also like: Louisiana’s coolest and kookiest plantations