Smithsonian Prepares Civil Rights-Era Artifacts Until the new National Museum of African American History and Culture opens on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2015, we're sneaking peeks at the objects being collected for display. This week, museum director Lonnie Bunch takes us back to the '60s and the civil rights era.
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Haunting Images Of The Ku Klux Klan; Expressions Of SNCC's Defiance

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Smithsonian Prepares Civil Rights-Era Artifacts

Haunting Images Of The Ku Klux Klan; Expressions Of SNCC's Defiance

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Now, from time to time, Guy Raz visits with Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the National Museum of African-American History, which is opening in D.C. in 2015. Mr. Bunch is giving us a sneak preview of the collection and takes us back to the 1960 this week and the heart of the American civil rights era and starts with a story about his colleague, Smithsonian photographer Jim Wallace, who offered him photographs that he took in North Carolina half a century ago.

Dr. LONNIE BUNCH (Founding Director, National Museum of African-American History): And I thought as a courtesy, of course, I'll see what my old friend put together. And suddenly, I saw these images, and I was moved in a way I hadn't been. What we're looking at are three images of the Ku Klux Klan marching around a burned cross outside of Raleigh, North Carolina in 1963. Jim Wallace, as not an African-American, was able to get close and take these pictures.

GUY RAZ, host:

Did Jim Wallace describe what it was like to actually be there, to be at this cross-burning?

Mr. BUNCH: He said what he hoped is that as he was taking the pictures that somehow they didn't look and see liberal on his forehead. And he also realized...

RAZ: He was a civil rights activist and...

Mr. BUNCH: That's right. A student at North Carolina, really sort of thought this was the wrong way to do things and was really documenting what he thought was a great evil.

You look at this image of the men and women of the Klan in their uniform, you know, you get a sense of who they are and their sense that this was acceptable.

RAZ: Nobody in these photos are hiding their identities. They're out in the open and perfectly proud of being part of this ritual.

Mr. BUNCH: Well, what I think is fascinating is how, in 50 years, we've gone from people being proud of that to recognizing that was one of the darker moments of the American experience.

RAZ: And now on the table, we have a long - looks like a wooden baseball bat, but it's not, clearly not.

Mr. BUNCH: It's an axe handle that has on it Lester Maddox Pickrick. Lester Maddox was really somebody who we've forgotten about. But in the 19560s, he was one of the symbols of segregation. And Lester Maddox owned a restaurant called the Pickrick, and he had these axe handles by the door.

RAZ: This is a restaurant in Atlanta.

Mr. BUNCH: This is a restaurant in Atlanta. And after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he made it clear that he didn't want African-Americans going into his restaurant.

RAZ: But by that point, it was illegal to deny them service.

Mr. BUNCH: That's right. The law said you had right to go anywhere you wanted in a public accommodation for food, and so the story is that there are African-Americans who are challenging Lester Maddox's right not to serve African-Americans, and Lester Maddox, when they came to the door, pulled out a pistol.

Many of the patrons pick up these axe handles that he had, sort of on the wall in his restaurant, and they chase the African-Americans away. And so these axe handles became a souvenir that people would buy.

On the one hand, it's just a piece of wood but on the other hand speaks volumes about defiance, about how many Americans needed something, as America was changing in front of them, to hold onto, to fight the new way.

RAZ: Whatever happened to Lester Maddox and his restaurant? I mean, by law, he was required to serve everybody. What did he do?

Mr. BUNCH: Lester Maddox, for years, would not let African-Americans in. And he was so popular that he leveraged this and was elected governor of the state of Georgia in 1967 and served until 1971. So breaking the law made Lester Maddox a hero.

RAZ: Amazing. Okay, let's see the next piece.

Mr. BUNCH: Well, what we're going to do is this is a collection from a woman named Joan Mulholland, who was an early member of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, created in 1960 as a way to coordinate the sit-ins and the freedom rides. And this was really a group of young African-Americans and white Americans who basically came together to right a wrong. And so she gave us these buttons.

RAZ: We're looking at a sleeveless jean jacket with all of these buttons all over the jacket. And this belonged to her?

Mr. BUNCH: This belonged to her. And these were buttons she collected. So you see buttons that talk about support the sit-in movement. And then it even has one of my favorite buttons in the collar is one that was a white button, and it had never on it.

And that was what segregationists would wear to counter that, to say that you never integrate. Well, what the SNCC people did is they took that button and turned it upside-down as a way to protest.

And so I look at this, and I realize that here's an example of how you can be 17, 18, 21 and transform the country.

RAZ: Amazing. It's one of the hundreds, thousands of artifacts and relics that will be on display at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. That's set to open in Washington, D.C. in 2015. Lonnie Bunch is the founding director of that museum. And we pop in from time to time here at the temporary offices.

Lonnie, thank you so much.

Mr. BUNCH: My pleasure, as always.

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