Martin Luther King, Jr. is often the first name coming to mind when one thinks of Atlanta. This giant of the civil rights movement was born here and despite countless days marching for freedom across the United States, Atlanta was always home. His legacy is preserved many ways in the city, but possibly none as profound as the Center for Civil and Human Rights.
Dedicated to the movement for equality by black Americans in the 1950’s and 60’s, the scope of the museum extends well beyond this critical struggle to human rights around the globe. My visit would be made poignant by the passing of John Lewis a few months later. Lewis was the epitome of a non-violent protestor and often stood beside King as they braved harm to achieve justice. Although Lewis hailed from Alabama, his participation in the civil rights movement brought him into King’s orbit and Atlanta, where he served as the city’s US Representative to Congress from 1987 until his death in July, 2020. A member of the group proposing the center in 2001, Lewis worked long and hard towards the grand opening in 2014.
The stature of John Lewis is quickly reinforced when you begin your tour through the biggest gallery in the center, “Rolls Down Like Water: The American Civil Rights Movement”. One of the first exhibits in this gallery focuses upon the ‘Freedom Riders’ – mixed groups of blacks and whites who boarded public buses and rode together through the southern USA. The Supreme Court had upheld federal laws prohibiting segregation of folks riding buses, but most southern states ignored the ruling and continued to impose separate seating for passengers. Sadly, the federal government did not see fit to enforce the law and so courageous groups staged non-violent protests by traveling together across state lines.
John Lewis was one of thirteen (seven black, six white) participating in the first freedom ride in 1961. Boarding a bus together in Washington D.C. and intending to ride to New Orleans, Lewis would be the first to be beaten when attempting to enter a ‘whites only’ waiting room at a depot in South Carolina. More violence followed, typically watched passively by local police forces. The first ride was ultimately halted as the bus drivers refused to get behind the wheel, but Lewis continued leading freedom rides, resulting in further beatings and spending forty days in a Mississippi prison (for violating state laws deemed unconstitutional!).
I share this snippet of John’s valor to let you know the story is told much better at the Center for Civil Rights. Perhaps the most impactful exhibit in this gallery is the ‘Lunch Counter’. Your encounter with this counter is uncomfortably foreshadowed by a sign advising “how long can you last” at the entrance (the exhibit is not advised for children under thirteen years of age). Proceeding past this sign, instructions are to put on headphones, place your hands on the counter and close your eyes. What follows is a recreation of the taunting and abuse endured by nonviolent protestors who were only sitting at a lunch counter posted ‘whites only’. Despite knowing you are in no danger, as the insults get louder and nastier and the stool shakes there is an irrepressible urge to open one’s eyes and confirm personal safety. Never have I been so powerfully made aware of the courage of others.
Another gallery captures the fight for equality with “Sparks of Conviction: the Global Human Rights Movement”, and expands the center’s scope world-wide. Staged on the top floor of the three-story venue, a diverse collection of exhibits reveals that many rogues and avenues of discrimination persist, balanced by inspirational stories of heroes who combat suppression. The setting of this gallery is juxtaposed versus the earlier ones, trading hallways offering a single pathway for open spaces that invite one to wander. Oppression is vast, and here one is reacquainted with prejudice against women and the LGBT community, as well as recent terrors: atrocities in Cambodia; the slaughter of Tutsi’s, and; the list go on. In this gallery the Center pulls off an admiral double duty of building awareness around tragedies borne from fear of those who are different, while motivating us to action through stories of bold individuals who refused to allow themselves to be overwhelmed by evil.
The final permanent gallery is on the lower level; “Voice to the Voiceless: Martin Luther King, Jr. Personal Collection”. I describe this as a ‘temporary permanent’ exhibit, because it constantly displays a rotating selection of King’s writing and personal artifacts. My daughter and I spent a great deal of time here and it is difficult to comprehend the enormity of King’s sage words – so much here was astounding and remains relevant, despite being a slim sliver of what the staff has available to cycle through and present before guests of the center.
Our tour ended on a note revealing the value of travel. I was deeply struck by the center and as much as I like to consider myself enlightened, recognize that being raised a white male in the US is a breeding ground for misguided preconceptions. Without exposure to unfamiliar cultures and ethnicities I might have matured into just another bigoted thug or bully. Thank heavens travel allowed me to appreciate we are equals with fascinating diversity. And on that note I would like to conclude this article with the way we concluded our visit.
As my daughter and I exited “Voice to the Voiceless” an attendant asked whether we had any questions. I do not recall how this lengthy conversation meandered, but after answering our questions I eventually asked whether she was aware of Charles Young. This was the resolute American soldier and third black man to graduate from West Point, who has a US National Monument dedicated to him in Ohio. The attendant had not, and I took the opportunity to regale her with his incredible dedication and efforts towards equality (you are encouraged to check out his story here on Suja!), culminating with me suggesting they add a Charles Young exhibit. Would I have been able to savor such a relaxed conversation with a woman of a different skin color without potent lessons from travel? I certainly would have been clueless about Charles Young, and my hope is the synergy of travel results in publicity for a life with parallels to Martin Luther King, Jr. – both building bridges desperately needed.