“The First Amendment is Americans’ superpower.”
We spoke with Noelle Trent, the Director of Interpretation, Collections & Education at the National Civil Rights Museum for the fourth installment of our First Amendment interview series, One on 1.
Noelle talks to us about the movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, differences between the protests of today and in the ’60s, and how the First Amendment is Americans’ “superpower”.
Noelle Trent: When people realize that, they’re like, “Oh my gosh I didn’t know I had this power.” It’s like our superpower as Americans that this is something that we can do. The issue is that not enough of us are aware of it.
Christian Cotz: Hi I’m Christian Cotz, I’m the CEO at the First Amendment Museum in Augusta Maine. Today I am joined by Noelle Trent who is the Director of Interpretation, Collections, and Education at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.
Prior to that, Noelle worked at the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington. Noelle has a Ph.D. in history from Howard where she taught for 4 years and her dissertation, ‘Frederick Douglass and the Making of American Exceptionalism’ is currently being expanded into a book. Noelle, it is so good to see thanks for being.
Noelle Trent: Good to see you. Even virtually, this feels good.
Christian Cotz: Why do you think the First Amendment is important?
Noelle Trent: I can walk through the galleries and I can see what freedom of assembly really means because you see it in the sit-ins, you see it in the March to Selma. It’s very much the foundation of the movement.
And most importantly, the freedom of the press. I think of Ida B. Wells and what she was writing in terms of putting out information of people who are being lynched. I think of the black newspapers that were documenting the movement and saying these are the issues that are happening in the community. So it’s very much ingrained in the story that we talk about.
Christian Cotz: Do you see the First Amendment as being a major player in your daily personal or professional life?
Noelle Trent: You know what, it is very much in my professional life and crosses over to my personal life.
I think of what happened with George Floyd back in May. As soon as that happened here in the Memphis community, people began to gather and this museum is a natural gathering point. We are located at the historic Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated and it’s this place that is very powerful. A very reflective place.
But then what happens on the grounds is also powerful. One of the weeks in June they had a teach-in. Intergenerational, interracial groups divided up, talking about, “Okay if we’re going to protest this is how we strategize,” or “What are the issues that we want to address?”
The other thing that we’re always trying to do in our work is to get people to understand that they can get involved. And the easiest way is to tell the government when you have a problem.
Even when society said that I didn’t matter as an African American, as an African American woman, as a black girl, all those things, I was raised to know that my voice mattered. And that if I had a problem, it was my duty to say, “Okay, guess what, I have a problem.” That can be through voting, that could be through marching, that could be through lobbying, and these are all things that I’ve done to have issues addressed.
Christian Cotz: Do you think that most people understand those intricacies and nuances of the First Amendment?
Noelle Trent: People intellectually know that they can exercise that option. I don’t think they do it as often as they should because I think they are under a mistaken belief that it won’t make a difference. We’re in a very cynical place as a society.
But then I think social media has helped flip some of that. People are saying this isn’t right or they’re Tweeting at a political official. I don’t know if people get that that’s a First Amendment thing that you just did there.
Christian Cotz: The history that you interpret of the 1960s and what we saw in the last year, where do you see the similarities? Where do you see the differences?
Noelle Trent: I think that this spring and summer’s demonstrations are a natural outgrowth of the movement. I think what’s different about the ‘60s versus today is that I don’t really think in the ‘60s there’s a whole lot of government recognition of an issue like Black Lives Matter. Part of this is because we have African Americans in political office, with a sizeable amount of authority. For the D.C. mayor to designate Black Lives Matter Plaza, and to put a big mural on the street, and so part of the work that was done in the ‘60s made Black Lives Matter Plaza possible.
The responses to protests are unfortunately very similar. In some cases, people are really supported but then you got a whole undercurrent of law enforcement and conspiracy happening around the resistance to it. Stories of people being taken off the street are still happening but now because of cell phones, we can see a protester walking down the street being surrounded by a group of cops and disappearing. Before in the ‘60s, you could say it happened, but if you didn’t have a camera – which was very difficult – you didn’t have evidence. So things are happening in real-time now where you can Facebook Live.
Christian Cotz: If you had one wish for the people of the United States, if you could wish them one thing that had to do with their First Amendment freedoms, what would that be?
Noelle Trent: I wish that they would take it more seriously. I think as a country we are very cavalier with the rights and benefits that we enjoy. We’ve become a little bit numb. You kind of look and be like, “Oh, that’s a shame” and kind of move on.