- The National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee
This special issue of Southeastern Geographer, guest edited by Tyrel “Tink” Moore and Derek Alderman, honors the work and friendship of Dr. John J. Winberry, who passed away in March of 2012 (Carbone 2012). John was a devoted student of the American South and he played a major role in ensuring the Southeastern would become a leading outlet in geography for southern studies research (Figure 1). Indeed, as editor (1988–1991), he created the journal’s “Changing South” section with the intent of bringing greater critical attention to the region (Wheeler 1998). The section’s very emphasis on change, as opposed to the more comfortable subject of tradition, prompted readers and future contributors to pay close attention to the dynamic geographic shifts and tensions that characterize the contemporary southern landscape.
It is appropriate that we honor John by choosing to grace the cover of this issue with a recent (August 2014) photograph of the National Civil Rights Museum, located in Memphis, Tennessee. The museum is built around the former Lorraine Motel, where civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. John’s seminal study of Confederate monuments, which are still found on so many courthouse lawns in the South, allows us to appreciate the significance of finding a memorial to the Civil Rights Movement in a region that has long romanticized and racialized the social memory of the Civil War (Winberry 1983). The National Civil Rights Museum opened in 1991 after a considerable struggle to raise funds and in the midst of calls from local opponents to obliterate what they saw as a place of “civic shame” (Dwyer and Alderman 2008, p 65). But while the Lorraine might have represented for some people a shameful reminder of a difficult past, it represented for others a highly charged point of racial identification and commemorative solidarity. That the landscape can embody multiple and competing symbolic meanings is an idea that John’s work exemplified, well before such an idea become such a common assumption within the work of cultural geographers.
The controversial rise of the National Civil Rights Museum is emblematic of the “Changing South” that John Winberry sought to highlight for the readers of Southeastern Geographer. The Memphis [End Page 1] museum is an important coordinate in a growing regional and national geography of memorials, monuments, parks, and streets dedicated to the African American struggle for civil rights (Dwyer and Alderman 2008). Once built, the National Civil Rights Museum did not become a static landscape. Recent renovations in 2013 and 2014 have expanded the museum’s exhibits and interactive media in ways that provide visitors a more evocative and immersive experience while also further reminding them of the need to continue pushing for human and civil rights.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
While the conversion of the Lorraine Motel into a museum is important in educating the general public, it is especially instructive to those of us interested in understanding the commemorative power and politics of the landscape. The landscape has come to be viewed and analyzed as both a process and a material thing. Within this context it is now widely recognized that landscapes are instrumental in processes of collective memory in which social actors and groups, including those who have been historically marginalized, can situate their identities in time and place (Alderman and Inwood 2013). Indeed the fundamental tension between remembering and forgetting that so powerfully characterizes the southern landscape of memory has animated a generation of geographers to explore wider struggles over the meaning of significant moments and figures in U.S. history (e.g., Leib 2002; Hanna 2008; Inwood 2009; Post 2009; Bohland 2013). [End Page 2]
Perhaps no era in the United States has sparked more passion than the United States Civil Rights Movement, which swept the country from the early 1950s until at least the 1970s. The passions...