Business Casual: Getting It Right

Sitting at the lunch counter replica, you are invited to place your hands palms-down on the surface and close your eyes. You hear voices – some whispery, some loud, all ominous, questioning your right to be where you are. You feel your seat being jolted.

At that point, I had to open my eyes to remind myself I was in no danger – unlike those who participated in the real sit-ins at the real lunch counters more than a half century ago.

The simulation is one of the first exhibits in the Rolls Down Like Water: The American Civil Rights Movement gallery in Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights. It is a powerful introduction to the entire center – striking whether you are old enough to have a clear picture in your head of the reality of segregated lunch counters, separate restrooms and chilling signs on the old Atlanta trolley cars that read, “White passengers seat from the front, colored passengers seat from the rear” or whether you have only seen photos in textbooks.

The center was a long time coming, but it is worth the wait.

For native Atlantans, it was tough to see other cities like Birmingham and Memphis open civil rights museums while Atlanta couldn’t quite pull it together.

Especially considering Atlanta’s role as birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement and home to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and its reputation as a city that avoided the kind of violence that characterized the era elsewhere, it was hard to fathom why we lagged behind.

Our city is home to Civil Rights heroes like Andrew Young, who twice served as mayor, and John Lewis, who has represented Atlanta in Congress for nearly 30 years. Home as well to Herman Russell, a behind-the-scenes force during the Civil Rights Movement, and to activist and leader C.T. Vivian and others.

Morehouse College, where the King papers have been housed, is part of the Atlanta University Center.

Any or all of those would be sufficient reasons for Atlanta to have led the way in creating a tribute to the events and people that contributed to the struggle for racial justice.

It may have taken a long time for the planning, the fundraising, the design and the build-ing, but the city and the people who worked so hard to bring the National Center for Civil and Human Rights to fruition got it right.

There are museum-like aspects, but it really is not a museum; it has the feel of a living, breathing institution. It pulls you in, allows you to learn or to remember – and accommodates the mixture of pride and regret that the exhibits prompt: pride in all that was accomplished, regret that the victories were so long in coming and the price so high.

The day I visited the center – by myself  – was a warm summer Thursday. I arrived just moments past the 10 a.m. opening time, joining an older crowd. Yet by the time I left, the crowd was more youthful – students and families with children.

I’d wondered whether the experience would have the same resonance for those who had only studied the people and events of the movement in school as for those who had lived through them. I’m still not sure, but it seemed to me that everyone was affected in some way.

The decision to connect the civil rights and human rights struggles was a wise one, and one that should deepen and broaden the experience for visitors of all ages.

The location near Centennial Olympic Park – with neighbors like the World of Coca-Cola, the Georgia Aquarium, the College Football Hall of Fame and the SkyView Atlanta Ferris wheel – makes it more accessible and more appealing. I hope visitors and locals alike will take advantage of it.

On the landing between the center’s civil rights and human rights galleries, a large screen projects images from Dr. King’s funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church and the procession to the cemetery where he was first interred, as words from his “Drum Major for Justice” sermon are played.

I stood behind a low bench where a black couple about my age was seated, watching the footage. The woman saw me, then patted the bench beside her, inviting me to share the space. As I sat down, I noticed we each had a tissue clutched in our hands.

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