An unidentified Union soldier poses with his wife and
daughters. Many African Americans celebrated emancipation by formalizing their
marriage — an act denied under slavery.
Washington — The Smithsonian’s national museums of American History and
African American History and Culture have teamed up again to mount a
thought-provoking exhibition, Changing America: The Emancipation
Proclamation, 1863, and The March on Washington, 1963. The exhibition will
run for most of 2013, an important anniversary year for both events.
“You have two pivotal events that are linked together in many ways. They are
linked together in this long trajectory of a struggle of people seeking justice,
freedom and participation in the American experience,” exhibition co-curator
Harry Rubenstein said. The events are linked, he added, because the leaders of
the march “took advantage of the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to
make their point ever stronger.”
The exhibition entrance features dramatic, life-sized photographic murals. An
1863 crowd of African Americans faces a similar group at the 1963 march, several
generations and a few feet distant. The intention of the curators was to “put
the two snapshots of the two moments together and let the visitor fill in the
in-between,” according to Rubenstein.
Ample stimuli for thought are on display. The Emancipation Proclamation
component offers powerful, evocative artifacts: advertisements for slave
auctions; shackles that were used to chain child slaves; the Bible of 1831 slave
rebellion leader Nat Turner, opened to a page in Revelation; abolitionist
Harriet Tubman’s belongings; and the ivory cane admirers presented John Quincy
Adams for his ultimately successful opposition to the “gag rule” prohibiting
discussion of slavery abolition in Congress.
Lincoln memorabilia include his black suit, frayed at the cuffs from signing
hundreds of documents, and the top hat he wore to Ford’s Theatre the night he
was assassinated. More important to scholars is a letter in which he declared
his support for black suffrage, written to Michael Hahn, newly elected governor
of Louisiana after that state applied for readmission to the Union. Lincoln
publicly aired this view in his last speech, three days before his
Photos and artifacts illustrate how a backlash to slavery’s abolition in the
Southern states came through the passage of discriminatory, segregationist “Jim
Crow” laws and violence against African Americans by such groups as the Ku Klux
Klan. Poll taxes barred the poor from voting. Yet abolitionists continued to
press for civil rights. New Year’s Day became Emancipation Day and commemorative
parades kept the spirit alive.
Videos made in collaboration with the History Channel explain the
significance of the Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington
through the words of historians and participants.
The March on Washington element of the exhibition introduces the visitor to
the tumult of political action. A continuous video plays clips of speeches and
performances given at the march. The curators wished to recreate the sense of
being in that diverse crowd of 250,000 people on August 28, 1963.
A multiracial crowd surrounds the Reflecting Pool from the
Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument during the March on Washington on
August 28, 1963.
“When you go to a big demonstration like that … you
don’t hear all the speeches, you come and you go,” Rubenstein said. “We wanted
to create an environment that somehow made you feel as if you were there. The
other thing we really wanted to do with this exhibition is emphasize that it’s a
combination of … inspirational leaders; at the same time this is a movement of
By holding the march at the Lincoln Memorial, the leadership significantly
linked the event to the Emancipation Proclamation in its centennial anniversary
Civil rights leaders on that podium had steered the movement through long and
difficult decades of activism. A landmark was the successful, yearlong
Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott led by a young Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
He delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Washington march.
Seasoned activists A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and James L. Farmer Jr.,
among others, spoke.
The exhibition acknowledges the efforts of pacifist Bayard Rustin, a key
civil rights activist and gifted organizer who masterminded the March on
Washington. His vital role was long underplayed because he was openly gay and a
former member of the Communist Party. A touching relic on display is the gold
pocket watch given to Rustin by King, inscribed “From Martin to Bayard for Aug.
Civil rights marches were occurring all over the United States. Memorabilia
from these and the Washington march — buttons, posters, signs — bring these
events to life.
Despite successes, there was still far to go. Testament to that are
stained-glass window shards from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham,
Alabama, where four young girls died when the church was bombed two weeks after
By 1964 the civil rights movement had enough momentum to ensure passage by
Congress of the Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson
on July 2, 1964. The Voting Rights Act followed in 1965.
Years of organizing culminated in the successful civil rights movement.
Similarly, an exhibition of this scope took decades of dedicated collecting.
Rubenstein said, “For an institution to pull this off requires generations of
curators who had the vision that this material was