In the Center of Atlanta
Burned to the ground in 1864 by Sherman’s invading army on its March to the Sea, sparing only churches and hospitals, Atlanta rose from the ashes of the Civil War to become a major transportation and commerce center. Today Atlanta is a cosmopolitan city, home to more than five million souls, and a mother lode of history and information for visitors wanting to learn about the Civil Rights and Human Rights movements.
Central to Atlanta’s connection to the Civil Rights and Human Rights movements are the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, which includes his preserved childhood home and burial place, as well as the Carter Center, which is adjacent to the Carter Presidential Library, and whose mission is “a fundamental commitment to advance human rights and alleviate human suffering.”
But, not to be overlooked is the Center for Civil and Human Rights located in downtown Atlanta on Pemberton Place, a 20-acre park named in honor of John S. Pemberton, the pharmacist who invented Coca-Cola in Atlanta, and whose still secret formula is securely housed in the neighboring World of Coca-Cola.
Center for Civil and Human Rights Opens 2014
As much as the World of Coca-Cola is more a marketing pantheon than a museum, awash with tasting stations where visitors can sample more than 100 international and domestic Coca-Cola beverages, the Center for Civil and Human Rights is a time machine that powerfully transports its visitors back to America’s violent and deadly war for civil rights. The Center opened to the public in June 2014 on land donated by its Coca-Cola neighbor.
History of Freedom Fighters
The permanent exhibits of the Civil Rights Movement are housed on the Second Floor, which is where The Center’s main entrance and ticket booths are located. Using interactive displays, this gallery entitled, Rolls Down Like Water: The American Civil Rights Movement, tells the stories of the courageous freedom fighters and iconic leaders, like King and John Lewis, who fought their nonviolent battles in the 1950s and 1960s against a murderous foe backed by corrupt and racist police and government officials.
Not surprisingly, the Rolls Down Like Water exhibit was curated by Tony Award–winning playwright and film director George C. Wolfe, who is the chief creative officer of The Center. And, like a great piece of drama, the entrance to the gallery sets the stage with its display of the Jim Crow laws in all of the southern states, laws that regulated and separated the “white and colored races” in all aspects of civil and social life. Separate public schools, bus station waiting rooms, seats on public transportation, personal relationships, voting and of course separate bathrooms, a discriminatory law that still informs the political and legal relationships in southern states today. Reading the long record of Jim Crow laws I could not escape the shameful comparison to the Nazi’s Nuremberg Race Laws and South Africa’s apartheid laws.
The exhibit of Jim Crow laws was followed by a reproduction of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision on the walls of the gallery, declaring separate but equal in public education to be unconstitutional. Moving further into the gallery, visitors meet the Freedom Riders who rode interstate buses across the South beginning in 1961 to desegregate public transportation and the segregated waiting rooms in southern bus stations. The police mug shots of the brave young, black and white Americans who were arrested for challenging these laws are displayed on a mock up of a Greyhound bus. The angry mobs who met them, encouraged by police and other officials, beat the Freedom Riders and burned their buses, but largely went unprosecuted.
Relive a Sit-In
The most powerful display for me is of a “whites only” lunch counter, like the one in Greensboro, North Carolina where in 1960 four black college students peacefully sat down at a Woolworth’s. Denied service they remained there until the store closed for the night and returned the next day and again were refused service. News of their sit in quickly became national news. Lunch counter sit-ins spread to other southern towns and eventually Woolworths rescinded its discriminatory policy, but not before these civil rights fighters took enormous personal risks and suffered beatings for a cup of coffee.
We took our seats at the five-seat replica and were asked to place our hands palms down on the counter in a nonviolent pose, close our eyes and put on headphones. The later requests were to virtually simulate the experiences of the sit-in activists. For nearly two minutes we were subjected to loud and abusive threats through the headphones of recordings from the mobs that gathered at the real lunch counters more than 50 years ago. Every so often, our seats would shake, causing my heart to jump, while hearing the mobs violently beating and kicking the activists.
Honoring Martin Luther King Jr
On the final stop in the gallery, we climbed a short stairway to a mock up of the second floor of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where we stood “outside” of the motel room where King was assassinated. This exhibit included film and photos of King’s funeral cortege as it wound through Atlanta, and of America’s cities exploding in anger.
Plan on spending at least an hour in this gallery in order to revisit this transformative time in America. And take the time to think about how far (or not) America’s race relations have traveled since the days of the Civil Rights Movement.
Who is Threatened?
On the third floor of The Center is an airy and open space dedicated to the Human Rights Movement at home in America and around the world. This gallery is less of a historical time piece and more of an informative everything you should know about human rights. To learn who the victims of human rights abuses are, we stood in front of a wall of mirrors which asked: Who, Like Me, is Threatened? Selecting from a list, a hologram appeared in the mirrors of a threatened human as they told their story of abuse. There are children, victims of war, sex slaves, disabled and LGBT persons. The list is painfully long.
Along another wall are colorful portraits of some of the greatest icons who fought human rights abuses. Ghandi, King, Eleanor Roosevelt, Vaclav Havel. On the opposite wall across the room are life size cutouts of the genocidal butchers, like of Hitler, Pol Pot, Kim Jong-un, Bashar al-Assad, and regrettably far too many others.
Notwithstanding The Center’s modest size of 63,000 square feet, there is much more to see. The Center packs into three floors of exhibition and event space a gut wrenching experience that leaves its visitors emotionally drained, and in the end forces us to confront America’s unremediated stain of slavery and the horrors of human rights abuses inflicted on our fellow global travelers. Make the Center a must see stop on your next visit to Atlanta.
Mondays – Saturdays 10am to 5pm
Sundays 12pm to 5pm
The Center for Civil and Human Rights
100 Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard
About the Author:Jon Karmel is a Chicago based lawyer representing labor unions and workers around the Midwest. Jon has been named among Chicago's Top Rated Lawyers, and was selected for inclusion in the 2013-2017 Illinois Super Lawyers. He serves as an adjunct professor at Emory University School of Law, where he teaches trial advocacy skills. He is a frequent speaker on labor and employments topics. Jon recently wrote a book about workers' deaths and injuries, featuring interviews with injured workers and surviving family members. Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace that will be published by the Cornell University Press late summer 2017.