Journey to Justice Exhibition at the International Slavery Museum

On the third floor of the Merseyside Maritime Museum at the Royal Albert Dock in Liverpool is the International Slavery Museum. Opened in 2007, the museum aims to increase understanding of the transatlantic slave trade and its continuing impact, but also draws attention to contemporary slavery. From the 5th of October 2018 until the 7th of April 2019, the Museum is playing host to the travelling Journey to Justice exhibition, designed by an organisation of the same name that uses the arts and education about human rights movements to try and inspire people to take action for social justice.

The Journey to Justice exhibition focuses on some of the lesser-known stories of the American civil rights movement, highlighting what motivates people to get involved and stay active in social justice campaigns. Unlike a lot of museums, the temporary exhibition space at the International Slavery Museum is not clearly separated from the permanent exhibitions, so Journey to Justice almost merges with the museum’s section on the contemporary impacts of the transatlantic slave trade. This is quite effective, highlighting the links between the legacies of the slave trade and the civil rights movement.

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The Journey to Justice exhibition, which is currently at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The exhibition features a number of ‘bus stops,’ each one telling the story of an individual or small group of people who took a stand against injustice during the civil rights movement. It starts with a map, detailing the dates and locations of 21 important moments in the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 60s. As a Geographer I may be biased, but I always find maps a really helpful way of contextualising examples and getting my head around the bigger picture.

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The ‘bus stop’ about Elmore and Peggy Nickleberry. Elmore was a sanitation worker in Memphis who took part in a strike of more than 1000 sanitation workers for better pay and conditions (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Each ‘bus stop’ features text, images, quotations, and recorded interviews or a poem written by local schoolchildren in response to the exhibition. The final example represents the Greensboro Sit-ins, when four black students sat at the lunch counter in an all-white restaurant and refused to leave. It also encourages visitors to interact with the exhibition, filling out labels about how they can take action for social justice. There is also a map of the UK labelled with important social justice campaigns which visitors are asked to contribute to. These interactive elements highlight the importance of properly maintaining exhibitions; the labels for people to write on had run out, which meant that no one else could contribute. It is a minor issue, but demonstrates that a museum’s work isn’t finished once the exhibition opens.

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The lunch counter section of the Journey to Justice exhibition encourages visitors to sit and reflect , and interact with the exhibition by writing down and displaying their responses (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

There is also a section for radical zines, self-published magazines that are frequently produced by activists. The Represent! exhibition at the People’s History Museum in Manchester (open until the 3rd of February 2019) also has a section for zines; perhaps this is an emerging trend amongst museums. It is also quite common now for exhibitions to feature sounds, speech, and/or music played out loud, so the visitor has no choice but to listen. The Journey to Justice Jukebox plays songs associated with the civil rights movement. I find speech played out loud in museums distracting, as I struggle to listen to one set of words and read another at the same time, but music I can deal with. In this case it adds an extra dimension to the exhibition, illustrating the relationship between the civil rights movement and popular culture, and highlighting the role music can play in motivating and inspiring activists.

Journey to Justice is a small exhibition with ambitious goals. It aims to use the history of the civil rights movements to encourage people to take their own stand for social justice. Whilst I am not convinced that a museum exhibition is an effective method of creating activists, I do think it is a thoughtful and interesting exhibition that is well worth a visit. The exhibition will continue to tour the country when it’s stint in Liverpool finishes, visiting London, Edinburgh, Leeds, and Leicester over the next few years, so don’t worry if Merseyside is a little too far for you to travel!

 

Book Review: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

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The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Harris

Jeanne Theoharis. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013). £16.99.

I buy a lot of books. To the extent that I cannot read books as fast as I buy them. As a result, I have a lot of unread books sitting on my bookshelves. Whenever I finish reading a book I go to my bookcase, look at all the unread books, and see which one takes my fancy to read next. A few weeks ago, it was the turn of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by Jeanne Theoharis. It has been sitting on my shelves since the great book-buying spree of ’15, during my trip to New York two years ago. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get round to reading it- I loved this book.

Theoharis starts this book at the end, with all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the funeral of Rosa Parks when she died in 2005. Perhaps one of the best known individuals in American history for her role in kickstarting the civil rights movement, Parks became a legend in her own lifetime. The quiet, soft-spoken seamstress who refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white man in Montgomery, Alabama is well known the world over. However, the legend of Rosa Parks bears only passing resemblance to the real woman. An activist all her life, her decision not to move on that bus was the result of years of anger and frustration at American injustice, not tired feet.

In this thoroughly researched, well-paced book, Theoharis details the life of a woman who was brought up with a sense of pride and her own self-worth, who was willing to stand up and defend herself if she was attacked. Along with others, Parks campaigned for civil rights in Montgomery for decades before her bus protest in 1955. The protest took its toll, leaving Parks, her husband, and her mother economically insecure and dealing with constant threats. In 1957, the family moved to Detroit, where Rosa continued to campaign for civil rights for the next four days. Whilst segregation was not legally enforced in northern US states, Parks saw it as just as pervasive as in the south, and continued to fight in any way she could.

In The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Theoharis looks at the myth of Rosa Parks, considering its purpose and effects, then dismantles it, writing a biography of a life-long activist who was not afraid to ruffle some feathers. Rosa Parks was a fascinating woman who had a fascinating life; she was a great admirer of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and she supported both the civil rights movement and the more antagonistic Black Power movement. Parks threw herself into so many campaigns and activities that her life is like a slice though the struggle for racial equality in mid- and late-twentieth century America.

I think most people are familiar with the myth of Rosa Parks, and know that she was someone special. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks reveals that the reality is much more interesting than the myth.

Turbulent Londoners: Claudia Jones, 1915–1964

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The third Londoner in the series would probably get on well with the previous Turbulent Londoner, Charlotte Despard. Claudia Jones was a black equal rights activist, and is known as the mother of the Notting Hill Carnival.


 

Claudia Jones was an inspirational woman (Source: Exploring 20th Century, n.d.)

Claudia Jones was an inspirational woman (Source: Exploring 20th Century, n.d.)

Claudia Jones was an influential campaigner for London’s Caribbean community from the mid-1950s until her death a decade later. She is known as ‘the mother of Notting Hill Carnival’, and founded The West Indian Gazette, the first newspaper printed in London for the Black community. Born in Trinidad, she was deported to the UK from America after being imprisoned for ‘un-American activities.’ She continued to campaign right up until her death in 1964.

Claudia Jones was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1915. Her family emigrated to New York City when she was 9, where they unfortunately remained poor. When she was 17, Claudia caught tuberculosis, which irreparably damaged her lungs, troubling her for the rest of her life. Despite this ill health she became a committed campaigner, joining the American Communist party in 1936. She proved to be a talented journalist, in 1945, she became the youngest staff member for the Daily Worker, as the ‘Negro Affairs’ editor.

As well as writing, Claudia organised youth, Civil Rights and religious groups as well as immigrant rights committees. She was a victim of McCarthyism after World War II, and was deported in 1955. Trinidad refused to accept her, and she was eventually offered asylum in Britain in October.

 

Claudia Jones was commemorated on a stamp in 2008 as part of the Women of Distinction series (Source: The Cocoa Diaries, n.d.).

Claudia Jones was commemorated on a stamp in 2008 as part of the Women of Distinction series (Source: The Cocoa Diaries, n.d.).

Claudia arrived in the UK at a time of massive immigration from the Caribbean. Many of the new immigrants were discriminated against by landlords, shopkeepers, employers and even the government because of their colour. Finding that many British Communists were hostile to a black woman, Claudia became a key leader in the African-Caribbean community, organising access to basic facilities, as well as taking an active role in the early campaign for racial equality.

From her work in the US, Claudia knew it was important for minority groups to have a voice, so in 1958 she founded The West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News, and edited it until her death 6 years later. Anti-racist and anti-imperialist, the paper provided a forum for the discussion of civil rights, and reported news that was frequently overlooked by the mainstream media.

In August 1958 racial riots occurred in Notting Hill in London and Robin Hood Chase in Nottingham. Claudia and several other leaders of the British black community were concerned by the racist analysis of the riots in the British media. She recognised the need to improve relations between different local communities, so she helped to organise the first Mardi-Gras style Caribbean carnival in St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959. It was a big event, and televised nationally by the BBC. Claudia and The West Indian Gazette also arranged five other annual indoor Caribbean Carnivals in London, which are seen as precursors to the Notting Hill Carnival, one of the most popular events in London’s calendar.

 

The Notting Hill Carnival now is one of the most popular events in London (Source: The London Notting Hill Carnival, n.d.)

The Notting Hill Carnival now is one of the most popular events in London (Source: The London Notting Hill Carnival, n.d.)

Claudia died on Christmas Eve 1964, when she was just 49. Despite struggling with the impacts of tuberculosis for much of her short life, she faced the dual disadvantages of being female and black with confidence, becoming a successful journalist and respected community leader and activist. She didn’t chose to move to London but she embraced her new home with gusto, fighting hard to make the city a better place for its burgeoning black community.

 

Sources

Azikiwe, Abayomi. “Claudia Jones Defied Racism, Sexism and Class Oppression.” Workers World. Last modified February 6, 2013, accessed January 15, 2015. http://www.workers.org/articles/2013/02/06/claudia-jones-defied-racism-sexism-and-class-oppression/

“Claudia Jones.” Wikipedia. No date, accessed January 15, 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudia_Jones

“Claudia Jones Honoured on Postage Stamp.” The Cocoa Diaries. Last modified October 20, 2008, accessed January 23, 2015. http://cocoadiaries.com/uncategorized/claudia-jones-honoured-on-postage-stamp/

“Claudia Jones ‘the Mother of the Notting Hill Carnival.” Black History Month. No date, accessed January 15, 2015. http://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/claudia-jones/4566344886

Foster, Kimberly. “27 Black Women Activists Everyone Should Know.” For Harriet. Last modified February 28, 2014, accessed January 15, 2015. http://www.forharriet.com/2014/02/27-black-women-activists-everyone.html

“Home” The London Notting Hill Carnival. No date, accessed January 23, 2015 http://thelondonnottinghillcarnival.com/

“Jones, Claudia.” Exploring 20th Century. No date, accessed January 23, 2015. http://www.20thcenturylondon.org.uk/jones-claudia