Center for Civil and Human RightsJune 8, 2017 in the United States
Our walk took us to a pleasant park area just across the road from the Centennial Olympic Park from where we had a choice of visiting the largest aquarium in the Western Hemisphere, the Coca-Cola museum - Atlanta is the home of Coca-Cola of which more later, or a small building at the end of the park which houses the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. As our time was limited and we have no interest whatever in Coca-Cola - the thought of tasting the stuff from all over the world not being very high on my list of treats, we followed a recommendation and headed for the building.
A few weeks ago we saw a film called 'Hidden Figures' about supremely gifted black women working at NASA during the time of segregation. On many levels it was excellent, moving, heartwarming, but at a very basic level utterly shocking to someone who had been largely unaware of the practicalities of living as a segregated and despised black person in the USA at that time. So I had this in mind when we crossed the threshold, heeding the instruction to leave our weapons outside.
Even this film had not prepared me for what I saw and learned inside and at the end I left feeling chastened and, although not personally responsible, a strange guilt that other white people like me had behaved in such degrading, cruel and wicked ways towards other human beings over such a long period. What I was seeing portrayed in grainy black and white photos, shaky cine film or ancient video happened only fifty years ago, within my lifetime and memory. How little had I been aware of the realities in my comfortable 1960s British idyll. One example exemplifies this - it is estimated that something like 10,000 black people were lynched by white people between the emancipation of the slaves in 1865 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Center is a well designed building and the exhibits lead you on a journey through segregation - white only waiting rooms, toilets, restaurants, public transport, laundries and so on, with rear doors only for blacks if they were allowed in at all - through the individual courage of the burgeoning civil rights movement which, to their credit, had many white participants, their non-violent stand against racial oppression, the very violent, bigoted and self-serving white response, and onward via a number of significant individuals to the towering figure of Martin Luther King jnr whose humble, dignified and immensely strong contribution was made clear and whose assassination in 1968 was all the more poignant and pointless. King's prescient last sermon delivered at the church we visited the next day and which was replayed at his funeral, described his view of his own life and what he hoped people would concentrate on if they spoke about him after his death. There were a number of times as we took in this civil rights story where tears were not far from the surface and listening to King himself describing his life-motivations was very moving.
In 1964, King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Lauded at events everywhere except in his home town of Atlanta, a dinner arranged by local worthies and businessmen was being boycotted until the chief executive of Coca Cola, a hugely significant presence and employer in the Atlanta economy, baldly stated that "It is embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner. We are an international business. The Coca-Cola Company does not need Atlanta. You all need to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Company.” Within hours the dinner was sold out.Read more