Exhibit Review

381 Days: The Montgomery Bus Boycott Story

Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture; Baltimore, Maryland

September 5, 2009–January 3, 2010


In classrooms across the nation and within public discourse, the Montgomery Bus Boycott often symbolizes the beginning of the civil rights movement in the United States. Rightfully so, women and men such as Rosa Parks, E. A. Nixon, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are celebrated as leaders and heroes of the movement for their words and actions which transgressed national boundaries to inspire global determination for full citizenship and equality as fellow human beings. Often less recognized however, are the hundreds of thousands of individuals who struggled alongside of celebrated heroes whom without their presence and sacrifice, the civil rights movement would not have existed.

This is the message of "not only one," that the Smithsonian Exhibit, 381 Days: The Montgomery Bus Boycott Story, tells so well. Through a chronological maze of free-standing walls adorned with personal writings, local debate, and national coverage, the visitor is able to more fully understand the complexities, depth, and heroism of the entire African American community as the modern civil rights movement formed and progressed. Visitors walk away with the message that the successes of the civil rights movement lay not only with a few people, but with all who sacrificed and maintained an unyielding determination for justice and equality no matter how large or well-known their contribution was. As stated by Claudette Colvin during court testimony in 1956, "Did we have a leader? Our leaders is we ourself."

The traveling exhibit was developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) in partnership with the Troy University Rosa Parks Library and Museum to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks' refusal to vacate her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her actions catalyzed a 381-day bus boycott where over 50,000 participants (mostly African American) refused to patronize the public transportation service until segregated ridership laws were abolished and all persons were allowed to freely ride. During the boycott, the African American community and allies suffered hardships such as harassment, violence, and lost jobs, whether participating directly in the boycott or simply by association. Despite these obstacles, the need for equality mobilized the participants into a force great enough to overturn racist policy through a United States Supreme Court decision declaring local and state laws requiring segregated busses, unconstitutional. Three hundred and eighty one days after the boycott began, African Americans boarded the bus at the front and sat where they desired.

The exhibit exudes a quiet yet undeniable determination and power. As visitors pass along exhibit walls, the dynamic voice of Martin Luther King Jr. addressing cheering crowds wafts over warm, rich melodies of gospel music. Periodically, King's words dissipate into sounds of footsteps and car horns that blend into visitors' shuffles and whispers as they read and react to the many photographs, historical texts, quotes, cartoons, and video presented.

Wall panels juxtapose personal accounts of boycott participants with local and national newspaper articles providing contextual frameworks in which visitors learn about competing discourses of systematic change, fear, and future possibility. Photographs depict struggle, determination, and elation by capturing crowded sidewalks of African Americans walking to and from their homes, African Americans piled into taxis and personal vehicles, weekly gatherings, police mug shots, and onlookers watching empty busses pass by. Finally, video presents the resounding words of local leaders, dialogue and celebration of supporters, and the steady footsteps of those who challenged the system.

A significant contribution made by the exhibit is through its attention to "the in-between." So often, the Montgomery Bus Boycott is discussed in a temporal vacuum, codified by the Rosa Parks event and the return to desegregated busses. As visitors make their way through the exhibit, they experience the boycott as a daily, painstakingly long event fraught with reoccurring harassment and violence, setbacks, challenge, and sacrifice. For example, photographs of carpools overloaded with people sit opposite those of police officers issuing tickets to African American cab drivers for allowing riders to pay a minimal fee for their services. Visitors become acutely aware that romanticized triumphs of carpooling, walking, and networking were not easily maintained due to great effort through physical and political coercion to disrupt the boycott and destabilize the momentum.

The exhibit's conclusion reminds visitors that the struggles for civil rights and equality associated with the Montgomery Bus Boycott are not only relevant to our past but also for the future. It challenges visitors to situate themselves within the ongoing conversation of civil rights struggles. What lessons may we take away from the Montgomery Bus Boycott? How are these lessons relevant to present day? What roles may we play to assure equality in a continually changing world?

While the exhibit commemorates the bravery of Mrs. Rosa Parks and the movement her actions galvanized, it also equally celebrates the bravery and sacrifice of those who came before her, struggled along side of her, and who continue to fight for equality among all human beings.

Sara Artes
National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers