A black teenager looks into a segregated soda shop where two ponytailed white girls sip their drinks and smile. In a courtroom, an elderly black man sits under a Thomas Jefferson quote inscribed on the wall: “Equal and exact justice to all men of whatever state or persuasion.” It’s not clear if he is a defendant or a witness. He is certainly not a juror or a judge. These are historical dioramas at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), in Birmingham, AL, and regardless of race, each figure is painted a stark ashen white temporarily flattening any specific racial differentiation.
The BCRI focuses on the American civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. Leaning heavily on dioramas to illustrate communities in the mid-century South, the BCRI sets the context for the struggle for educational, social and economic equality by blacks in the United States. The museum depicts classrooms, churches and shops that aim to illuminate the history and fallacy of “separate but equal.” Visitors become a part of a city cleaved by separate houses of worship, distinct business sections and disconnected neighborhoods.
But the civil rights movement was a complex one, going beyond a simple blacks-and-whites issue. In a courtroom gallery, I flip through a book highlighting such litigations mainly around education, public space and the dismantling of Jim Crow policy.
I come across Lum v. Rice 275 U.S. 78 (1927), which in this context at the BCRI, stood out to me. This case centers on Gong Lum, a Chinese American grocer who attempted to enroll his 9-year-old daughter, Martha Lum, at a white school in Bolivar County, MS . In 1927, Martha attended her first day of school, and as was the practice at the time, she and her classmates went home for lunch.
Before the break was over, the Lums were informed by the board of trustees that Martha would be barred from returning to the school “solely on the ground that she was of Chinese descent, and not a member of the white or Caucasian race.” Lum filed a suit against the board, reasoning that under the Constitution of Mississippi, Martha had the right to attend the school since she was a full citizen of educable age and he was a contributing taxpayer.
A lower court first ruled in Lum’s favor, granting Martha the right to attend the school. The case eventually went before the Supreme Court, which supported the board’s decision citing Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 ruling that upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in “separate but equal” public facilities. The final ruling in Lum v. Rice barred Martha from the school and further solidified racial segregation in schools and public areas.
The Lums were not the only Chinese American family in 1920s Mississippi. At the time of the Lum ruling, there were nearly 1,200 Chinese Americans in the Mississippi Delta region. In fact, Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans from other states moved specifically to Bolivar County in the late 19th century.
After the Civil War, white Southerners sought to undermine the changing power shift between freed black slaves and white slave owners by encouraging non-black migration (one of many strategies used to implement policies that would become Jim Crow law). Initially, the mostly Chinese American men worked as sharecroppers, but many rapidly went on to own grocery stores serving mainly black patrons.
By encouraging non-black immigration, the presence of non-white residents increased, creating a new social and economic quandary. Arguably, they had created a less black but more racially and ethnically diverse, educable Southern public.
Those in power struggled with the Chinese community in Bolivar County, and with each growing “minority” group, Southern whites resituated segregationist policy. The Lum v. Rice ruling was a critical setback in civil rights legislation in the South and resulted in a flattening of racial and ethnic identity in Southern courts — you were either white or non-white.
In the BCRI, the Lum case ruptures the narrative around race, which is too often limited to the experiences of blacks and whites. The BCRI opened in 1992 with the mission to memorialize Birmingham’s human rights struggle in “a healing and non-divisive manner, while portraying the harsh truth.”
But what if the BCRI made the many stories of the civil rights era equally present? This would mean actively telling the lesser-known and complicated histories of people like Gong and Martha Lum within the fight for civil rights.
Jacqueline Clay is a San Francisco-based writer and curator.