In 1964, the United Nations declared 1968 the International Year of Human Rights, inspiring plans for a Human Rights Year exhibit at the Smithsonian's Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History). As part of this exhibit, Keith E. Melder, Political History curator, initiated work on a focused African American history collection and curated the first permanent African American history display. "We were approaching the climax of the civil rights movement in 1964-1965, and to not have African Americans represented in this exhibit of historic Americans, [there] was something wrong with that."
Keith E. Melder (1932-2017) came to the Smithsonian in 1961 while completing his studies on the Women's Rights Movement. His background in national human rights campaign history motivated his focus on the Civil Rights Movement, especially when he realized there was "virtually none . . . no material relating to African Americans exhibited at the Smithsonian." For the International Year of Human Rights in 1968, Melder began to plan a civil rights exhibit.
Although "some of the administrators considered the subject itself to be too hot," Melder sent out the Civil Rights exhibit script in March 1965 to six administrative offices, including the exhibits editor. On April 16th, Melder received one copy back from Frank A. Taylor, Director of the Museum of History and Technology, with comments approving the proposal. However, by July 20, 1965, Melder realized that the remaining five manuscripts had not only gone unread, they had, in fact, gone missing. "The record of the Office of the Director indicated that a memorandum was received on the subject but there is no record of a script" wrote Assistant Director Silvio Bedini. Upon Bedini's advice, Melder had no other choice but to rewrite and redistribute the document. The loss of the scripts, whether deliberate or not, further motivated Melder to create a civil rights exhibit.
Despite the unsettling setback, Melder's new exhibit manuscript received approval in the Fall of 1965. However, after the proposed exhibit made national headlines in December 1965, more caution was expressed. Scholars agreed that the exhibit was necessary yet were concerned about the approach and successful execution of the topic. Some museum visitors were even concerned about their safety during turbulent times. "Let me beg you to have the present dangerous situation in our country in mind when you consider exhibiting artifacts which may, quite rightly, instill a further hatred of the white man," wrote one worried museum visitor on December 9, 1965. These concerns did not sway Melder. Well-versed in the motivations inspiring the movement, particularly influenced by Martin Luther King's philosophy of the "beloved community," Melder approached the exhibit with an understanding of the gravity of the content he intended to display. He accommodated these fears, however, with revisions to the script in order to display a sense of neutrality on the issue, as was his responsibility for a public display.
Despite his deliberate neutrality, some still took offense at the display. The Civil Rights Exhibit opened at MHT in 1968, showcasing a range of artifacts from anti-slavery to the recent civil rights campaign material. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, Melder decided to display a protest banner commemorating King's legacy. The commemorative display was not well-received by some visitors, inciting a drastic reaction. "In those days, we were very naive about these things, and we just hung it on the wall out of reach of visitors, and somebody torched it." Melder and his team were "stunned" by the action taken to deface a piece of history that held a tremendous amount of emotional value. "[The incident] gave us pause and really helped to sort of slow us down in the direction we were going. It was a little bit traumatic for me."
Although Melder and his team started to phase out the most controversial aspects of their exhibit, Melder "continued in a low-key way" to collect object related to African American history. He pursued his own individual efforts to "create community that crossed racial and economic boundaries" by spearheading activist organizations on Capitol Hill. Melder's fight to pursue research and support the collecting of African American history at the Smithsonian never diminished.
When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September of 2016, the study of African American history gained its own physical spot on the Mall. The formal establishment was particularly important for the Smithsonian since some 50 years prior, plans for the first civil rights exhibit were nearly thwarted. "The recent controversies over the museum of African American history on the Mall raised these same concerns," Melder confessed in a 1999 interview. "There is no doubt that we ran up against that issue beginning in, well, the mid 1960s." Melder's pursuit of a dialogue and an African American history collection at the Smithsonian was a historic move, but by no means the end of that conversation. "Don’t be deterred from trying to make these connections between scholarship, the spirit of the times," Melder advised future generations. "It's not always easy, but it can be done . . . because it's a matter of heart. I don't like to use that word, but eventually it actually comes down to that."
- African-American Exhibits at the Smithsonian Interviews, 1999, 2001, Record Unit 9603, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- American Association of Museums Centennial Interviews, 2006, Record Unit 9620, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- National Museum of History and Technology, Office of the Director, Records, 1944-1975, Record Unit 276, Smithsonian Institution Archives