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  • Writer's pictureMario Daniels

Pop-up museum in Newark highlights civil rights struggles, urges residents to vote


Published: April 17, 2023

Shennell McCloud had a dream.

Like the dream Martin Luther King Jr. described in his Washington, D.C., speech on Aug. 28, 1963, McCloud’s also involved racial justice and equality.

“I had a dream that myself and my team were heading to Brooklyn, and we were going to do something big in the community, and when I woke up, I started to think, what could that dream have been?” said McCloud, 36, a Newark native and mother of three who’s CEO of Project Ready, a nonprofit voting rights advocacy group. “And it made me think, what would it look like if we had a pop-up museum that specifically focused on voters?”

About 50 people found out on Wednesday when McCloud hosted a preview of the Voting Power Experience pop-up museum inspired by her dream, housed in a former Salvation Army emergency shelter at 79 University Ave. in downtown Newark, which will be open afternoons and evenings Friday-Monday through June 30, starting this Friday. Click here for hours and free tickets.

The museum aims to improve Newark’s typically low turnout at the polls, with its opening date less than three weeks before school board elections on April 25 and two months ahead of the June 6 primaries for November’s state Senate and Assembly races.

To emphasize the effort and sacrifice that helped secure voting and other rights for people of color, the museum combines artworks and recreations of iconic moments and locations in American history.

There is a lunch counter replicating the one at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, where in 1960, four Black college students staged a sit-in to protest the whites-only policy there and at countless other establishments throughout the South.

Wooden desks and chairs from the 1950′s evoke the New Orleans elementary school classroom desegregated by 6-year-old Ruby Bridges. A digital image of a striding Bridges and another student, “Ruby Moves Through Segregation” by Newark artist and educator Antoinette Ellis Williams, is among dozens of works in the museum.

A working grand piano evokes gospel singer and activist Mahalia Jackson, who advised King, “Tell them about The Dream, Martin,” during his Washington speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Several seats of a real vintage passenger bus parked outside the museum are occupied by cutouts of Rosa Parks — at the front of the bus, this time — U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Stacey Abrams, and Newark-based poet and activist Amiri Baraka.

Four child mannequins in white dresses represent the young girls killed in the Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing by white supremacists on Sept. 16, 1963. There is a voting booth where volunteers will show people how to cast their ballots in advance of the real thing. A “Dear Newark” exhibit includes a desk and writing paper where visitors can express their aspirations for New Jersey’s largest city.

The collection of exhibits took about two months to assemble, at the cost of $120,000, plus volunteer time and in-kind contributions, said McCloud, who had worked for the KIPP New Jersey charter school organization before founding Project Ready six years ago.

McCloud told a crowd of about 50 activists, elected officials and others at a preview of the museum on Wednesday that just 3% of Newark’s registered voters cast ballots in last April’s election, a dismally low turnout even for a school board race. The turnout for Newark’s May non-partisan municipal election was also low, at 11%, even though the mayor and all nine council seats were up for grabs in a city-wide contest that only happens once every four years.

Eight candidates will vie for three seats on Newark’s nine-member Board of Education, while all 80 assembly seats and 40 senate seats in the state legislature will be up for grabs. Tuesday was the last day to register to vote in the Newark school board race, while April 18 is the last day to apply for a vote-by-mail ballot, according to the Essex County Clerk’s Office.

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