After World War II, government officials wanted to remind America that it stood for freedom and democracy, in contrast to the Nazis.
One idea was the “Freedom Train” - a massive stunt that would bring the original Constitution, Emancipation Proclamation, and Bill of Rights on a train around the country.
There was only one problem - Black Americans still didn’t have freedom OR democracy.
How could they showcase a document that said “All men are created equal” and then have segregated viewing areas?
Walter White, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, wouldn’t stand for it. “We have got to live [democracy] as well as talk about it,” he demanded. Langston Hughes published a fiercely critical poem about the exhibit’s potential hypocrisy if it was segregated.
Millions of people went to see the Freedom Train. Every city agreed to an integrated exhibit except for Memphis, TN and Birmingham, AL. So it skipped them!
Black and white residents in Memphis organized buses to Nashville and Jackson, TN, so they could see the exhibit together. Montgomery, AL almost insisted on segregation - but none other than Rosa Parks herself intervened.
Memphis and Birmingham were hugely embarrassed for sticking to their racism.
The scandal brought into stark contrast the difference between America’s ideals and its racist practices - a distinction still felt acutely by Black Americans today.