Explore black history in U.s.
Civil rights centre in Georgia looks at the struggle for freedom and equality
ATLANTA — At a time of deep divisions in America that includes white nationalist rallies, travellers to the deep south may want to learn more about the origins of racial divides in the country.
The capital of Georgia, a state that in 1859 was the backdrop for one of the largest slave auctions in U.S. history with more than 400 adults and children sold, offers a good starting point for understanding the civil rights movement.
The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, situated close to downtown, highlights both local and global struggles.
“I think with today’s climate, we have become a place where people are just coming to learn. They’re trying to figure things out,” said Nicole Moore, the centre’s manager of education and content.
They may have seen something on the news and wondered how and why society got to this point, she said.
The exhibits seek to answer those questions, as well as show how activists responded at the time, said Moore, so visitors can form their own conclusions and determine what action they can take next, such as writing to political representatives.
Near the entrance, a museum aide suggests guests navigate the exhibits by level of intensity, beginning on the second floor that’s dedicated to the American civil rights movements and houses the interactive, often emotional lunch counter experience, before heading up to the third floor where a more global look is presented. Finally, on the first floor, the museum’s Martin Luther King, Jr. collection is a rotating exhibition of items.
In the American exhibit, a long wall highlights some of the Jim Crow laws — ones that regulated racial segregation — from various states, including Georgia. These laws commonly prohibited inter-racial marriages and mandated separation of people by race at public establishments, like restaurants or swimming pools.
Further along, guests learn about non-violent protests, including the first lunch counter protest in Greensboro, N.C., where four black students sat at a whites-only lunch counter at the local Woolworth store and refused to move. The action sparked a months-long movement.
Visitors can choose to participate in an interactive exhibit that aims to immerse them into the experience of one of the protesters.
A mock lunch counter is off to one side of the room. Four at a time, a staff member asks guests to sit down on a bar stool and place their hands on the counter, on top of hand prints drawn on the surface. Guests wear headphones and shut their eyes.
For about 1 minute and 50 seconds, they listen to jeers and threats from others in the imagined eatery. The bar stool shakes at one point, signalling the threat of physical violence.
Moore always tells people this experience is what “transforms” their visit to the centre.
“It becomes, ‘Could this be me? Would this be me? How would I react?”’ she said, creating a kind of “come-to-jesus moment” where people must grapple with whether they’re built for the front lines or another aspect of fighting for human rights.
Visitors can then take that knowledge with them through the rest of the centre, which focuses on the global movement. There they learn about both historical and current abuses, dictators and activists.
“Our goal is to ensure that people reflect on the experiences of the American civil rights movement to inspire them to action — in whatever way they see fit,” said Shani Drake, director of marketing.
“Ultimately, we hope that their experience here transforms them.”
Mug shots of the Freedom Riders are affixed to the side of a model bus as part of an exhibit at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
The National Center for Civil and Human Rights.