Exhibit Reflection: We Who Believe in Freedom: 1964–A Transformative Year in Civil Rights
By Lance Wheeler
Each year, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights partners with the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection, to showcase Dr. King’s personal papers in our museum’s Voice to the Voiceless Gallery. 2023’s exhibit focused on the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom during its 60th anniversary. This year’s rotation chronicles major events in 1964 that transformed the civil rights movement.
The Center’s Exhibitions Director, Lance Wheeler, shares his thoughts on the events of 1964, and how they shaped the formation of the exhibit.
As I look back at 1964, I am drawn to the collective efforts of individuals who strongly advocated for equality. This critical time, set against the backdrop of the intense climate of segregation, saw established leaders, grassroots activists, community organizers, and influential figures join in solidarity against racial discrimination. The atmosphere was charged with the urgent need for change, prompting a united front to address systemic injustice.
Amid the enthusiasm for progress, the journey was marked by setbacks and wins. Setbacks, in the form of resistance to change, entrenched prejudice, and systemic obstacles, challenged the resolve of those seeking equality. Despite this, advocates remained resilient.
This resilience produced notable wins – legislative victories, community mobilization, and increased awareness to spur positive change – that demonstrated the power of collective action in overcoming barriers to equality. This pivotal year underscored the complexity of the struggle for civil rights, illustrating the resilience required to navigate the turbulent path toward a more just and inclusive society.
In 1964, civil rights leaders and volunteers orchestrated crucial events such as organizing Freedom Summer and persistently pushing for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Organizers sought to eliminate discrimination, especially in voting rights and integrating public spaces.
On December 11, 1964, Dr. King travelled to Oslo, Norway, to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his unwavering leadership, advocating nonviolent resistance against racial injustice. The prestigious award underscored the profound impact of the civil rights movement.
The title of this year’s King Collection exhibition We Who Believe in Freedom – 1964, A Transformative Year in Civil Rights acknowledges the collective mission of the movement, honoring the multitude of voices that demanded and fought for freedom. The leading portion, We Who Believe in Freedom, draws inspiration from the encouraging lyrics of the Black female a cappella ensemble, Sweet Honey in the Rock, in their masterpiece, “Ella’s Songs.” The song serves as a heartfelt tribute to civil rights leader Ella Baker, emphasizing that grassroots organization and collective power can dismantle systemic racism.
Crucially, the transformative power of the civil rights movement came not just from notable leaders, but also countless individuals declaring, “We Who Believe in Freedom Shall Not Rest Until it’s Done.” I invite visitors to explore this year’s rotation and consider Dr. King’s profound understanding that societal transformation happens when people collectively declare, “enough is enough.”
The rotation displays compelling narratives and diverse materials through a rich array of historical artifacts, letters, flyers, magazines, and photographs that vividly encapsulate the spirit of Freedom Summer.
Visitors can immerse themselves in Dr. King’s handwritten notes, providing valuable insights into his reflections on the momentous passage of the Civil Rights Act. Delving into Dr. King’s thoughts and eloquence, our exhibit presents a unique opportunity to explore early drafts of both his Nobel Acceptance Speech and Lecture. We offer a fascinating glimpse into the evolving nature of these seminal addresses, allowing attendees to connect more intimately with the historical context and the dynamic process behind these influential pieces.
During his remarks to the Nobel Committee, Dr. King announced a call to action which still resonates today. “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”
Dr. King’s legacy of exemplary leadership continues to inspire individuals to embrace the noble struggle for a more inclusive and equitable society.
We Who Believe in Freedom- 1964, A Transformative Year in Civil Rights is featured in the National Center for Civil and Human Rights’ Voice to the Voiceless Gallery through 2024. Visit civilandhumanrights.org/buy-tickets to purchase your tickets today!