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By Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs Curator of Collections Elizabeth Coulter
The Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs has recently accessioned into the State’s Historic Collection a protest face mask and shirt that were created as part of the calls for racial justice that surged across the nation in 2020. The division currently accepts donations to the collections, which include around 100,000 objects, that support the agency’s mission and vision. Before an object is acquired for collection it undergoes a rigorous review process. Several recently accessioned objects reflect the agency’s efforts to collect history as it is happening.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a truck driver, bouncer, hip hop artist and religious mentor living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, died at the hands of a police officer in uniform during an arrest. The response exhibited by people across the country in the wake of Floyd’s death was unprecedented. As we collectively mourn Floyd’s death, we too mourn the loss of many lives due to senseless and excessive acts of violence. These new acquisitions, a face mask and shirt with austere, impactful design, memorialize this moment in history. The design of the apparel — featuring a black background with a contrast of white, bold, all-caps lettering — speaks to the seriousness of the topic and stresses the urgency of the phrases which are quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The first, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” is one of King’s most well-known quotes. King participated and led countless civil rights protests in the 1950s and 1960s. In April and May of 1963, he participated in the Birmingham Campaign, an organized non-violent resistance, in Birmingham, Alabama, to protest racial injustice. After sit-ins, marches and other forms of dissent, local officials issued a blanket prohibition on protesting. When the protests continued after the ban, King was arrested and put in the Birmingham City Jail. It was there he wrote “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” as part of his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that emphasized non-violent civil rights advancement, and was distributed throughout the United States in print. The letter and this quote were used to defend and support non-violent protests from that moment to today. It emphasizes the injustices that take place are not isolated, and that they impact people’s safety and stability everywhere. It also speaks to the reach of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The second quote, “to ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it,” originated from King’s speech on economic justice and the federal role in urban affairs that he delivered to the U.S. Senate in December 1966. This speech addressed the social and economic inequities and injustices of affluent America and poor America. The quote “to ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it” called out the complacency of people. This quote, as used in protests today, is seen as a call to action, or a means of motivating people to step out and protest rather than stand on the sidelines.
The face mask and shirt displaying these phrases unearth layers of history while simultaneously reflecting the evolution of protests and personal expression. The person wearing these items can communicate so much without saying anything at all. This form of protest also adds to a level of intimacy that is different from a sign because they were worn.
The donor and creator of these objects partnered with his friend to make them because he “did not want to be someone who just posted about wanting change” but that he “wanted to do something that would have an impact.” He not only personally participated in the Black Lives Matter protest on May 30, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware, but he also acted and found a positive way to give back to the community. He and his friend made these face masks and shirts and received orders for them from all over the state and even some in different parts of the country. They then took the profits from the sales and donated them to two organizations, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and So… You Need A Tutor?
The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights “works locally, state-wide, and nationally to shift resources away from prisons and punishment and towards opportunities that make our communities safe, healthy, and strong.” So… You Need A Tutor?, based in Wilmington, Delaware, is a Black-owned, “educational tutoring organization supporting students enrolled in elementary and middle schools throughout Delaware’s New Castle County communities.”
This face mask and shirt, through personal narrative, honor the emotional and resilient efforts in the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 in Delaware. The division adds these objects to the Historic Collection and participates among a growing trend in the museum field to conduct “rapid response collecting.” The division hopes to collect material culture as history is happening so these moments and the personal stories are not lost.
As the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs’ curator of collections, Elizabeth Coulter participates in developing and installing exhibits, developing and presenting educational programs, providing access to the collections, collaborating with partnering organizations and expanding the profile and use of the collections. She holds a bachelor’s degree in art history and American studies from Rutgers University and a master’s degree in decorative arts history from George Mason University and the Smithsonian Associates.