If you are ever in Atlanta with children, your own or other people’s, you might schedule the National Center for Civil and Human Rights as one of your stops; otherwise, this is just ANOTHER Atlanta site that won’t really be as transformative as one might expect. While the Center does many interesting things with new technology, like featuring the famous photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a Birmingham, Alabama jail cell while the words of his famous epistle get spelled out in cursive as you watch or when you enter the Human Rights portion of the Center and you stand before a mirror that appears to have a person trapped inside who begins to talk when you step in front of them. Besides how technology and design can be used to reinterpret the past, most adults over 35 have seen the photographs and documents used throughout the Center. There are no primary documents or texts of any sort–except for the few King documents on display. The one document that I found most interesting was the pencil written costs of the funeral arrangements (unfortunately, the photos from my phone don’t show clearly…but I’ll work on it); but even most of the primary documents on display are mostly available for view on the King Center website, the Stanford website, or on Google. Normally, I wouldn’t suggest digital text over printed text, but if you are a researcher interested in the Morehouse King Archive, your experience will be completely digital as the documents are considered too fragile and too expensive for individuals to routinely handle. To that end, seeing King’s pink death certificate as an object was little different from viewing that same document online.
I’m finally beginning to understand that a Center is not a Museum. Centers are for those who need to really step into the shoes of people who suffered indignity to learn, to find the past relevant, to experience empathy and perhaps compassion. Thus, Centers might be wonderful sites for elementary through middle school students but by high school, I would hope students could sympathize with the young activists who were harassed, beaten, and spat upon at lunch counters in the South without having to sit on replica stools at replica lunch counters listening to hate speech through a headset…but maybe I’m overreaching. I overheard three high school teachers discussing the free tickets their school was given to take the entire student body to view Selma. They never mentioned teaching a lesson using primary sources or even secondary ones so that viewing the film would not be understood as the primary source for their students’ understanding of history. The teachers were mostly concerned with who the unknown sponsor(s) for the tickets might be. Nor did they appear invested in the motive behind someone thinking it a good idea for an entire school to go and view a movie that will soon be released for home viewing or streaming in the coming months.
Miles and I have been reading Toni Morrison’s children’s book, Remember: The Journey to School Integration, and that experience has been quite enriching. The cover of the book features a black girl and a white girl sitting face-to-face. When we began from where we left off, Miles said, “we already read this page.” After we finished the section, I closed the book and pointed out that he thought we’d read that page because he recognized the photograph because it is also the one featured on the book’s cover. While the historical details regarding each photograph is documented at the end of the book, Morrison’s “captions” are written in the form of a story. So as we’re reading, we’re discussing what the children might be feeling or thinking; what a dilapidated school looks like and the influence this might have had on students in these schools; we’ve talked about feelings of shame and fear. As far as I’m concerned, our experience reading this book further diminishes the urgency that I feel towards taking my son to the Center; if I take him at all. It might be better to skip the Center with it’s $16 entrance fee and $10 parking and just go the library. Working your own imagination over photographs, general text, and sculpture seems like a much better way of spending your time and money.