The Center for Civil and Human Rights is located in Downtown Atlanta in Pemberton Place, the park complex that houses the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca-Cola. Spread across three floors, the museum focuses on the Civil Rights Era, global human rights, and features special exhibits related to these topics.
You approach the building and there are two huge water sculptures made of glass and metal that contain quotes from Nelson Mandela and Margaret Mead. The exterior of the building is beautiful and features rectangles of various shades of brown and tan. The water sculptures and the building have both smooth curves and also dramatic angles that combine to create an architecturally striking entrance. I tried to enter through the doors on the lower level, but because of the special admission, I guess, I had to walk up the curved steps along the sides to the upper-level entrance that faces the other Pemberton attractions.
The Center for Civil and Human Rights uses timed tickets but due to the free admission, I had to wait about 45 minutes to enter. The staff was actually very efficient at distributing tickets and moving people through security. But, the delay was caused by the museum being, in my opinion, relatively small, having a lot of free admission visitors, and kids being out of school for winter break. I imagine the wait would be shorter and the building less crowded at other times of year.
Rolls Down Like Water: The American Civil Rights Movement
When you enter The Center for Civil and Human Rights from the upper level, you’re greeted by a comic book art installation. The staff will most likely suggest you begin with the permanent civil rights exhibition. From the Pemberton level, it’s the ground floor but it’s actually the second level in the museum.
There’s a doorway featuring two wall-sized collages of “Colored” versus “White” images that welcome you into the civil rights exhibition. Everyone looks happy in most of the pictures and they show moments from everyday life as well as special social occasions. I didn’t see a wall placard nearby and really didn’t get the significance of the murals in light of the rest of the museum. They’re just regular pictures, but you have Black people on one wall and White people on another.
Sweet Auburn is a historically Black neighborhood in Atlanta that is home to several historic landmarks. Due to segregation, Black people were relegated to certain areas of the city and couldn’t patron a lot of mainstream businesses. As a result, Black entrepreneurs started their own businesses to serve Atlanta’s Black citizens. Sweet Auburn Avenue became a hub of the Black business and social world with a strong presence of Black-owned businesses, churches, and other establishments.
The Center for Civil and Human Rights has a historical surveyor map that shows the neighborhood’s layout so you can see the cross streets and such. I find maps, cityscapes, and historical photos to be really interesting. So this was actually one of my favorite parts of the exhibition. There are photos, text, and audio info about eight or so of the neighborhood’s landmarks. The experience provides a trip back in time while looking at a part of the city that you can still drive through and drive by.
Segregation was a Southern institution that was created and enforced by government and law enforcement. If there ever was an example of institutional racism, this was it. Jim Crow laws are displayed explaining the myriad ways that Black people were legally disenfranchised and socially ostracized from mainstream society and resources.
This section of the exhibition features photos and profiles of eight prominent segregationists from throughout the South who were governors, senators, and other elected officials. It provides quotes about their ideologies as well as blurbs about their most notable segregationist activities. Some of these elected officials aren’t as well known, but the display does a good job of explaining how they earned a place on the wrong side of history.
There’s also a stack of video monitors designed as old fashioned TVs with dials that actually show recordings of their racist and idiotic rhetoric. I wasn’t alive at this time. So it’s one thing to read their words, but something else to actually see and hear them in action.
The City Too Busy To Hate
Atlanta developed a program to differentiate the city from other cities in the South by adopting the tagline “The City Too Busy To Hate”. This meant that Atlanta was more focused on progress, moving forward, commerce, and business compared to some of the other cities. So they didn’t have time to devolve into more violent reactions to attempts at integration.
Basically, they tried to develop an image of Atlanta being more moderate and progressive than other Southern cities. The reality was that city leaders were worried about the impact that violent reactions to desegregation would have on Atlanta’s commerce and perception elsewhere around the country and the world.
There’s a bit of honesty in admitting that behind the scenes negotiations took place largely out of commercial concerns rather than concerns for humanity, equality, or moral obligation. From the explanations given, it seems that most of the politicians were lukewarm opponents or even in some cases supporters of segregation.
But, they saw the reality that continuing to keep a hard line on segregation might have a negative impact on commerce and business. The tides were kind of turning and they couldn’t hope to be a part of the business world at large beyond the South if they clung to the practices that had been in place for about a hundred or so years. They just had to get with the times.
I was kind of conflicted about this display. You had white politicians and business leaders who developed and pushed the idea of Atlanta being more moderate and progressive than other Southern cities. From the explanations given, it seems that most politicians were lukewarm opponents or even supporters of segregation, but yet you have it where There was a spotlight on these people’s contributions where they’re maybe not exactly heralded but at least acknowledged for their contributions in this period of Atlanta’s history.
I felt conflicted about that because they didn’t risk their lives for much of anything or maybe not explicitly so. Their lives were never really in danger as I don’t think anybody was going to kill them because they were trying to operate in Atlanta’s best interest with regards to business. But, they’re kind of applauded for their contributions.
Then you have these civil rights activists on the other side of the equation whose lives were threatened, faced injustice, and were sacrificing to actively participate in bringing about change. They weren’t just trying to temper or moderate the risk of things getting out of hand. They were putting themselves and their livelihoods at risk to bring about change in their lives, the Black community, and the community of Atlanta at large.
Yet, these politicians who aren’t really risking much of anything, maybe votes or something, are given pats on the back for doing what should have been done and actually should have been a given and rather unnecessary. Despite the origins of Coca-Cola, the company’s push for Atlanta’s progress forward and threats to leave the city are actually admirable.
I’d previously heard of Ruby Bridges, but not the details of her experience beyond the day she integrated the New Orleans school system. I thought it was cute on the one hand, but also sickening that when she approached the crowd of protestors outside her new school, she initially thought it was Mardi Gras. Reading about how she and her family suffered retaliation following the event was eye-opening. It made me wonder about the other activists who risked their lives and livelihoods and the Civil Rights Movement.
The story of Claudette Colvin is mentioned far less than that of Rosa Parks. I respect and appreciate that Ms. Colvin is given a place of acknowledgment and honor in The Center for Civil and Human Rights rather than being an afterthought or an also mentioned. I was also impressed that the contributions of other activists, such as Joanne Robinson, are acknowledged. Their planning of the Bus Boycott is often overlooked and not mentioned. There’s a very heavy presence of women and the contributions of women in the Civil Rights Movement throughout The Center for Civil and Human Rights that I really loved and appreciated.
Usually when you discuss the Civil Rights Movement during Black History Month, there’s like a select group of figures from Black history who are discussed. Rosa Parks, definitely. Martin Luther King, definitely. Maybe if you go back a bit in time, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. But, Black history is so rich with icons both in America and also around the world. In this context when discussing American Civil Rights and Black history, there are all of these other icons that contributed not just to the Civil Rights Movement, but even before that who were doing really great and noteworthy things that quite often are overlooked.
Women in The Movement
You know, it’s like we, there’s a lot of attention placed on a select few individuals who certainly deserve it. But then there are also these other people that contributed to many of the same movements too. A lot of their activities don’t really get their just due. And then even within the Civil Rights Movement, you find that there’s a lot of emphasis or attention placed on the males that contributed to the Civil Rights Movement and it certainly deserves to be acknowledged. But, something that’s often overlooked is that while Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a lot of the other men played a part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott but the idea came about from the activities of women.
Women were the initial organizers and then continued to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott over the year or so that it took place. They arranged for the transport of the people who weren’t riding public transportation. They helped to organize through churches, civic organizations, social groups, and things like that. It was the women that helped to get the word out to let people know about the boycott and that also helped to manage the day-to-day activities.
The March on Washington
The section focused on The March on Washington was pretty cool. In addition to discussing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his, “I Have a Dream” speech, attention is also given to Bayard Rustin one of the key architects of the march as well as Dorothy Height.
Some of these people might’ve been more widely known during the ’60s as all of this was going on. They would have probably been captured in photos, interviews, and news broadcasts. But, over time their profile or prominence has kind of faded. It was a really great learning experience to see those people also given some shine. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is heavily featured throughout The Center for Civil and Human Rights and Rosa Parks is also mentioned. But, then there are all of these other people that time has somewhat forgotten or that you don’t hear so much about that are given their just dues here.
The room dedicated to The March on Washington is a really nice big brightly lit room with a lot of information about what went into the planning the actual day. It gives the perspective of being on the ground, how things were organized, how the march progressed, the original plans, and things that had to be changed at the last minute.
As someone born far after the time that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his I Have a Dream speech, I obviously wasn’t there. But, that’s the speech that I know of. Other individuals also gave speeches on that day. But, something that’s often not mentioned or might not be noticed is that aside from Mahalia Jackson singing, there were no female speakers. This speaks to the sexism of the time. Yet, within that room, some of the female contributors are acknowledged and in particular, it specifies what their contributions were to that day in history. They didn’t get their just due on that day, but they are recognized here.
As well as Bayard Rustin, a gay man whose sexuality most certainly wasn’t accepted at the time or publicly acceptable at the time. But, he made huge contributions to The March on Washington as well as other activist and civil rights activities during that time. He was pushed to the back because of his sexual orientation. He was someone whose contributions featured heavily in the events of the Civil Rights Movement, but whose credit has been overlooked because of his sexual orientation.
Not The Same Old, Same Old
There are also the sort of topics that are covered whenever we discuss civil rights. So there’s a display about the Freedom Riders, the integration of the Little Rock, Arkansas school system. As I mentioned before, there’s also a display about Ruby Bridges. But, with Ruby Bridges, the thing that I liked was that we’ve all seen the image and the Norman Rockwell painting.
But, instead of just focusing on that one select picture, there’s also additional information given about the aftermath of Ruby Bridges’ experience. So, I learned something new there. It’s like a story that you might have heard, but with additional details and facts that are probably less known and less discussed.
There’s also, an interactive display related to the Sit-ins. People would go into restaurants or I think Woolworths was one of the places, department stores, diners, eating establishments, bus stations, and train terminals that were segregated. You would have a white waiting area and a black waiting area or just one service area but Black people weren’t served there.
These activists would go to the segregated counters or service areas and requests service. That’s usually covered when we discuss civil rights. But, they kind of flip it and make it a little bit different where The Center for Civil and Human Rights has a lunch counter that you sit at and you sort of experience being at a sit-in. Obviously, you don’t have people yelling, pouring stuff on you, or being physically threatened. But you kind of get to somewhat experience what it might have been like to be in that environment. You’re given content that is pretty widely known but in a new and different way. I thought that was a really great approach to educating people about this time in history. But not the same old, same old.
Voice to the Voiceless: The Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection
I initially thought this was a special exhibition and in some ways it is. The Center for Civil and Human Rights has a permanent Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Gallery that features rotating exhibitions from The Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection. During my visit, the museum had some letters, telegrams, and speeches on display. What was interesting about this is that mixed in these documents were drafts of some Dr. King’s most well-known speeches and letters (“I Have a Dream”, “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, etc). I honestly didn’t have the patience to read each and every letter and there were also a lot of other people in the exhibition. But, I appreciated the significance of the documents on display.
As a side note, I was intrigued by Dr. King’s transcript. Young Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up to be an incredibly accomplished man. but I think my mom would have had some things to say if I brought some of those grades home in school.
The experience of reading over Dr. King’s letters reminded me of when my grandma died a few years ago and I found a bunch of her letters from the 70s and 80s. It was like reading snapshots from my family’s history. While standing in the exhibition, I couldn’t help but wonder about how history will deal with the fact that a lot of people don’t actually write letters anymore, but instead send emails.
The exhibition also had a case that contained some of Dr. King’s personal toiletry items. Dr. King was assassinated decades before I was born so I only know of him as an icon from the Civil Rights Movement. Looking through his stuff was like going to someone’s home and snooping in their medicine cabinet. (Not that I’ve done that before.) It felt kind of weird but also fascinating and humanizing.
Spark of Conviction: The Global Human Rights Movement
I tend to be apprehensive when I visit civil rights museums that also include general human rights exhibitions. Sometimes museums can make it seem like all of the problems and injustices faced by people of the Black diaspora ended in the 60s and life was great from the 1970s onwards. Human rights exhibits can also feel like a last minute idea that was tacked on to round out a museum and show that America isn’t the only country with problems. But, I felt that the combination of these two subjects was well executed in this case.
Some of the issues that have continued on past the Civil Rights Era are woven into the larger discussion of global human rights. So The Center for Civil and Human Rights begins with a tight focus on a particular period in the history of America. But, then uses the lingering issues of systematic racism to transition into the wider topic of human rights. Instead of the exhibits feeling like they belong in two different museums they’re united under the overall theme of what I would consider the “inhumanity of humanity”.
I won’t dive too deeply into this exhibition because it’s a bit beyond the scope of Noire Histoir. But, I thought it was as equally well done as the civil rights exhibition. I didn’t have high expectations going into it, but I was very pleased with the experience.
Breaking Barriers: Sports for Change
On the other hand, I didn’t particularly care for the Sports for Change exhibition. It was pretty small and kind of awkward to move through. The exhibition is on display in a hallway/catwalk and some of the displays were in corners so you had to squeeze around other people while also trying not to bump into the railings or the stuff on display. Some of it just felt like run of the mill sports athlete quotes. The photography was great but the content seemed thin. I did enjoy the large photo of Jesse Owens running and thought the analysis of the famed Black Power Olympics photo was very informative.
Pretty cool. Um, I would say check it out if you visit while the temporary exhibition is still on display but it won’t affect your overall museum experience if you visit while a different exhibition is on display.
Overall I enjoyed The Center for Civil and Human Rights. I definitely think it’s worth checking out. Full disclosure, I visited during Black History Month when the Coca-Cola Foundation provided free admission for that time period. Tickets are regularly $20 for adults and $16-18 for youths, students, seniors, and educators. But, had I known it would be that busy I probably would have waited and gone during a time when it was less busy. I think the experience would have been even better. I certainly enjoyed my visit but I think going during a time when it’s not quite so crowded would have been more enjoyable because you would be able to read the placards more easily and move through at your own pace.
When I went there was a really long line so I didn’t have a chance to sit at the lunch counter. My mom visited later she was able to sit at the counter and had a great experience. But, it was also crowded so it was kind of hard to see everything because there were so many people and some of the rooms are quite tight because everything isn’t just on the walls. You have some displays that are in the middle of the room so you have to squeeze past other people.
The Center for Civil and Human Rights is very well put together with a lot of interesting information. If you have pretty good knowledge of the American Civil Rights Movement then you probably know many of the people and events covered. But a lot of it is presented in a new way or at least in a more creative way than you might be used to.
Visit the The Center for Civil and Human Rights website www.civilandhumanrights.org
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