Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, and the March on Washington, 1963, a traveling exhibition now open at the GRPM, examines the relationship between two great people’s movements, which both grew out of decades of bold actions, resistance, organization, and vision. One hundred years separate them, yet they are linked in a larger story of liberty and the American experience – one that has had a profound impact on the generations that followed.
The GRPM added a twist to the exhibition, using artifacts and stories from a local perspective. In addition to artifacts from the GRPM Collections, many artifacts on display were on loan from the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives. Local stories were told through the eyes of our community in the form of oral histories. The exhibition included a place for visitors to share their story. Shared stories are saved in the GRPM’s digital archive found at grpmcollections.org.
Changing America was open May 27 through October 13, 2019.
Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963 was created by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of American History in collaboration with the American Library Association Public Programs Office. The exhibition is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
About the Exhibition.
Emancipation from slavery was not the product of one act but of many. In the 19th century, enslaved and free Americans chipped away at slavery through daily acts of resistance, organized rebellions, and political pressure on politicians, generals, and the U.S. government. Finally, on September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which ordered that as of January 1, 1863, all enslaved individuals in all areas still in rebellion against the United States “henceforward shall be free,” and under the protection of the military.
The Emancipation proclamation was limited in scope and revolutionary in impact. It committed the nation to ending slavery. The U.S. Congress responded with Constitutional amendments abolishing slavery, expanding citizenship rights, and giving black men the right to vote. These acts changed the political landscape, but the new freedoms were stripped away in the following years. However, on each Emancipation Day anniversary, Black Americans organized parades and speeches reminding the black community and the entire nation of a commitment that remained unfulfilled.
These local Emancipation Day celebrations and many other actions set the stage for the national push for freedom in the 20th century. On August 28, 1963, an estimated 250,000 Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in the District of Columbia to mark the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. People traveled from every state, united across race, class, and ideological lines, and representing organizations, unions, churches or simply themselves. The prayers, electrifying speeches, and stirring music of that day served to remind Americans of the nation’s commitment to fulfill its founding principles of liberty and equality for all.
In the months following the march, demonstrations and violence continued to pressure political leaders to act. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were turning points in the struggle for equality. The bills outlawed segregated public facilities and prohibited discrimination in employment and voting. The success of the March on Washington and the achievements of the modern struggle for civil rights have provided a lasting model for social change.
The exhibition has traveled to 50 venues across the nation, accompanied by public programming designed to help audiences understand and discuss the relationship between these two great people’s movements.