“381 Days: The Montgomery Bus Boycott Story,” is an engaging history lesson from Reconstruction to the non-violent demonstrations of 1955–56 in Montgomery, Alabama that were sparked by Rosa Parks. While the focus is on one of the turning points in the struggle against segregation, it shows the side of those opposed to desegregation as well.
The exhibit, located at the DuSable Museum, features a range of media designed to convey the story of the bus boycott, starting well before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. There are court documents, paintings, drawings, movies, and photographs. The photographs are multitudinous and show meetings, mug shots, and various committees, as well as personal photographs from different participants.
The most startling photograph is one of a dual lynching that depicts onlookers staring at the horror with a sense of glee. It’s a powerful photograph, confronting the travesties of our shared history. “Have we changed?” the exhibit seems to ask.
There is a plethora of information in this exhibit, and it’s impossible to make it all the way through without exhausting yourself. While the room containing “381 Days” is small, the Museum has crammed a ton of media boards into this cozy space. Each board contains a photograph, painting, or drawing, as well as quotes from the movement’s participants and opponents alike. This much information can be overwhelming, and that’s the point. There is no easy and simple way to explain segregation and how people fought against it. There is no short way to convey the power and hurt of those who participated in the boycott.
A part of the exhibit is a small screening area in the middle of the room, a respite from the information overload surrounding it. The video features speeches by Martin Luther King Jr., the Mayor of Montgomery, and the head of the Montgomery Transportation Authority. In eerie contrast, there are images of the Ku Klux Klan preparing to burn a cross at one of their rallies. Throughout the exhibit, there are constant reminders that the bus boycott didn’t exist within a vacuum, nor did it represent the only indignities that blacks faced.
Though it is a thoughtful, well put together, and extremely well researched piece, the layout leaves something to be desired. Is it intentional that there is no clear path through the exhibit? Does the Museum want you to search far and wide for the nest point in the story? Perhaps. Perhaps that’s part of the experience—the creation of a space that’s long and winding, but unclear, similar to the way the boycott participants must have felt. If that’s the reason, then it’s pretentious. I hope that it’s merely poor space design and awkward use of the room available.
“381 Days” isn’t perfect, but it’s deeply moving. Do we forget about the fact that not so long ago people struggled for the right to live in the same world? The images and the explanations, the history and the quotes, all remind us that the struggle is not over, and that we are not so removed from this dark chapter of American history.