The Customer Experience of Civil Rights

By Patrick Dawson posted 05-18-2016 12:18 PM


As a child of the 60’s, my childhood was shaped by three national phenomena: the fascination of NASA and its televised liftoffs and landings, the charisma of the Kennedy’s, and the seismic cultural shift of the Civil Rights movement. I’d visited NASA and JFK’s gravesite. A recent trip to Alabama completed the retro tour.

It was a self-guided customer experience of profoundly impactful sites: the Civil Rights Institute (CRI) in Birmingham, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and the Civil Rights Martyrs Fountain at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery. It was a wrenching look back to the indescribable events of the time – the water cannons, the bombs, the beatings, the murder of dozens of blacks and whites devoted to the cause.

The brilliant design of the CRI transports visitors through interactive displays to a time of segregated water fountains, buses and lunch counters. Each room is anchored in a seminal quote of a Civil Rights leader at a defining event, supported by news footage and photos.

Perhaps the most gripping display is devoted to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four young girls in 1963. It traces the investigation and trials than led to life sentences for two of the men linked to the bombing. As you scan the storyline, your eyes rise to a window overlooking the very church it memorializes. Kitty-corner from the church, the Kelly Ingram Park houses a series of vibrant sculptures that capture haunting, emotional moments: the girls lost in the bombing, attack dogs leaping out at marchers on leashes, water cannons, and other sights common to the movement. 

The 90-mile drive south to Selma takes one through rural farm communities to a town seemingly frozen in time. There’s little wayfinding directing the visitor, but when you approach the Alabama River on US 80, the only signage needed still remains in all its ignominy: the block letters spelling out the Edmund Pettus Bridge, memorializing the former Democratic Senator and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. In an era of condemnation of the Confederate Flag, somehow the name of a racist judge and US senator continues to mark one of the iconic landmarks of the Voting Rights movement.

The walk across takes only a few minutes. But it’s the slope – not the span -- of the bridge that creates a stunning visual. As you ascend, you realize the marchers literally could not see what awaited them on the eastern side of the bridge until they reached the midpoint. Only then were the armed police visible ahead. The evening news footage of authorized beatings of unarmed citizens changed the Civil Rights discourse forever.

The last stop on the tour was the Southern Poverty Law Center and, specifically, Maya Lin’s magnificent tribute to those whose death was a direct result of the organized movement. The names of 41 martyrs – black and white – are inscribed in granite around the clock-like sculpture, available to all passersby in its the sidewalk location. Inside, the SPLC houses, among other displays, the Wall of Tolerance – signatures of more than half a million people who have taken a personal stand against intolerance in any form.

The state’s tourism motto -- ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ -- created an ironic backdrop to our experience. Ours was bittersweet, to be sure. But worth every mile.