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  • Writer's picturePhillip Ratliff

Exhibit Brief: Alabama Justice

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

Can the federal government forbid businesses from refusing to serve customers on the basis of race? In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled that so long as the discrimination was private and not the result of state action, the federal government could not intervene.

But in 1964, the Civil Rights Act and a landmark Birmingham restaurant gave the Court another opportunity to consider the question.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids businesses from discriminating on the basis of race. However, Ollie McClung Sr. believed that, if he served African Americans, white customers would no longer eat there. McClung filed a lawsuit in federal court, seeking an injunction against the Department of Justice to keep it from enforcing the law against Ollie’s Barbecue.

Unlike earlier civil rights legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is grounded in Congress’ authority over interstate commerce. McClung argued that his restaurant did not engage in interstate commerce because it did not advertise and only served customers living nearby.

The U.S. District Court declared that the Civil Rights Act exceeded Congress’ authority, at least as it applied to Ollie’s Barbecue. The Johnson Administration appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

The Court ruled unanimously that the Civil Rights Act applied to restaurants because the food they served had traveled in commerce. The Court’s decision was the high point of Congress’ vast Commerce Clause authority.

Ollie McClung’s suit against U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach was one long list of landmark Supreme Court cases that started in Alabama. Times v. Richardson secured freedom of the press to offer full-throated criticism of government power. Wallace v. Jaffree set limits to school prayer in U.S. classrooms. Two rulings stemmed from the Scottsboro Boys case: Powell v. Alabama, which guaranteed the accused right to adequate counsel, and Norris v. Alabama, which guaranteed the right to a jury of the accused’s peers.

In 2016, Auburn University political science professor Steven P. Brown approached Backstory founder Phillip Ratliff about featuring eight Alabama-based Supreme Cases in a traveling exhibit. Phillip helped Steven write grants and build out a budget and timeline. In the summer of 2018, interpretive design began in earnest. Along the way, Phillip added designers to build the nucleus of Backstory Educational Media. By early October, Steven and Backstory had a script, a design template, images, a platform, and a production plan.

They also had a title, Alabama Justice: The Cases and Faces That Changed a Nation. As the title suggests, the exhibition would not only address the legal arguments and outcomes. It would put a human face on legal history. Through this exhibit, visitors would get to know more about Ollie McClung and the people he impacted. Visitors would come to know more about the Scottsboro Boys, Sharron Frontiero, Ishmael Jaffree, Charles Gomillion, and others the challenges they faced and what motivated them to seek change through the judicial system.

One of the biggest design challenges: translating Steven’s nuanced knowledge into the language of exhibit design. The 8’ x 8’ traveling panels would accept scads of text. But exhibits aren’t books and text is legible on only about two thirds of the total space. So the team developed a visual language capable of organizing Steven’s rich content into visitor-friendly chunks. Their design lexicon included layering ideas using font sizes and color blocks and dividing information into units. Each case's panel contains a header, the case’s relevant facts, the legal question it posed, a summary of each side’s arguments, and a section dedicated to the ruling in and impact of each case.

Another way to frame the problem: the panel had to work somewhat like a section of gallery wall, upon which several panels of varying sizes might be placed.The designers determined early on that some information was for the extra-curious, grazers who like to read every word and consider deeper context. For them, Steven and Backstory scripted vignettes and a timeline of legal precedents. Digital designer Kevin Kunze of QuietPixel placed these sidebars in eight iPad interactives.

The designers paid close attention to perspective, mocking up strategies to ensure that text was legible and intuitive. Because visitors approach panels from a distance, headers should be high, large, and bold. Fonts had to be legible from three to five feet. Font size, color, and height should signal a hierarchy of function.

No one would be stooping to read the bottom third of the panel. But the design team didn’t want to throw this segment away. The designers decided that treating the bottom section like wainscoting, bringing in images of newspaper clippings and archival photos in a collage, was the way to best use this neutral space.

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