How the African American History Museum Is Curating the "Black Lives Matter" Movement

  • 2015-12-17
  • Smithsonian

Three weeks ago the City of Chicago released dash camera footage of police shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times, killing him. In Baltimore the first trial is underway in the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old who died after suffering a spinal injury while in police custody. Sandra Bland was found dead in her Texas jail cell after she was arrested for a minor traffic violation. Eric Garner said, “I can’t breathe” 11 times as New York police held him in an illegal chokehold; he was declared dead an hour later. A police officer fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a Cleveland park when he allegedly mistook Rice's toy gun for the real thing. Walter Scott died in North Charleston when a police officer shot him as he ran away during a traffic stop for a broken taillight.

Other black Americans killed by police in the past two years include: John Crawford III in Dayton, Ohio, Ezell Ford in Florence, California, Rekia Boyd in Chicago, Illinois; Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, New York, Tanisha Anderson in Cleveland, Ohio and the list goes on.

Last fall after the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Lonnie Bunch, the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, assembled his staff.

How should the museum respond, he asked. Recognizing the historical and cultural significance of these incidents of police brutality and the public’s unapologetic response to them, Bunch charged the museum’s curators and specialists with the task of documenting the Black Lives Matter movement. They needed to collect artifacts and ephemera of the campaign, which was founded online by three black women in 2012.

Just two months after Brown’s death in Ferguson, police in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis shot and killed VonDerrit Myers Jr., also an 18-year-old black youth, sparking another wave of outrage and protest in the grieving community. Powered by the enduring energy from the demonstrations in Ferguson, activists in St. Louis quickly organized events in response to Myers’ murder, including a rally, which attracted several thousand attendees.

Darian Wigfall, a native of St. Louis who joined protest organizers in Ferguson, helped lead the response to Myers’ murder. Inspired by his father, an activist in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and his own unfavorable interactions with police, Wigfall became heavily involved in St. Louis’ activist circle about five years ago.

“Knowing that racism is intertwined in the fabric of our American society, I feel like if we’re not working to change that, we’re not doing ourselves justice if we’re really trying to have a ‘more perfect Union’ as the constitution says,” explains Wigfall.