It sits in Atlanta’s Pemberton Place, just past the Coca Cola Museum, the Georgia Aquarium down on the left. A striking modern building, wood and glass, rises up from the perfectly manicured green lawn. It is a tribute to the immense struggles that defined a race for generations, to the struggles that races, genders, religions, ethnicities still face today.
On a recent whirlwind, 12-hour day trip to Atlanta, my coworkers and I had some time to spare before catching out flight back to Jacksonville, so we headed to the brand-spanking new National Center for Civil & Human Rights.
Upon entrance, you are greeted with a gorgeous display of civil and human rights images, connected by one hand.
The bottom floor is dedicated to the leader of the Civil Rights Movement and one of the most important figures in modern U.S. history, Martin Luther King Jr. One of the first things you see when you walk in is a painted replica of his bookcase. Dr. King and I didn’t read a lot of the same books but it was a fascinating glimpse into the man. I learned a lot about him that made him seem so human. He was born and raised in Atlanta, son of a preacher man. A precocious young man, he went to college at age 15. His handwriting wasn’t really the best — it was super hard to read pretty much all of his writing. He got a C in a public speaking class (really?).
But I was mostly just impressed at his absolute brilliance. There was a sweet sampling of his writing on display — so eloquent, so descriptive, so beautiful. I am a lover of words and MLK ‘s writing was a masterclass in how to not only express but evoke feeling. He crafted the most lovely of sentences. I definitely geeked out over some of his pieces.
The second, main floor of the center is a fabulous, interactive look at the history and highs and lows of the civil rights era: “Rolls Down Like Water: The American Civil Rights Movement.” What I most appreciated about the exhibit was that it painted a very real picture of life back then for both blacks and whites. Every which way you turned, there was a video, a display, a face on a board that begged you to find out their story. One of the most fascinating sections was was a board that showed the “Jim Crow” laws of the southern states — when you clicked a button for a certain state, say Kentucky, the display flipped to their particular laws. Laws that were equally disgusting, appalling and laughable for their ridiculousness. Who came up with that crap? People I’d never want to know, that’s who.
I especially loved the room dedicated to the powerful March on Washington, August 28, 1963. There was a breakdown of how many buses shipped people into D.C, The number of sandwiches distributed. There were bios of the organizers — including Jacksonville’s own A. Philip Randolph — and a moving short film on that day that brought me tears. It was such a day of hope. It was cool seeing a young, baby-faced John Lewis at the podium. It was heartbreaking to read about Bayard Rustin, the man they wanted to be the March organizer, but were afraid to put in that position because he was a gay pacifist. He eventually did most of the heavy lifting, but damn, the oppression he must of felt. It was coming from every which way.
It seemed like the hope from that day was fleeting… just beyond that was a room with a TV playing Walter Cronkite announcing MLK”s death; Robert F. Kennedy addressing a crowd with the news, only two short months before his own assassination. On the floor, the cities where race riots ensued lit up. For every gain, there was a setback. But for every person who sacrificed their life for the cause, there was another person to stand up and take their place. What a dynamic time in our country’s history. I have such respect for the people who fought the good fight… and such disdain for those who thwarted their efforts. I’ll never understand how people could feel so much hate.
The third floor of the building is dedicated to human rights. Faces like MLK, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Ghandi look down upon the exhibit from their portraits on the wall. One display looks at what people in other countries face — the clothing sweatshops in places like Bangladesh that burn down, taking most of the workers with them. The little kids in Pakistan that sew together soccer balls. The injustices are everywhere. This exhibit was equally depressing and inspiring. We’ve come so far, yet the journey is infinite.