“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world.” – A quote by Margaret Mead from a water feature sign outside the Center for Civil and Human Rights.
How long can you last during a 1960s Woolworth sit-in as angry people jeer and threaten to hurt you?
You can find out at the interactive lunch counter exhibit at Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
During our first visit to the museum near Centennial Olympic Park this month, my 10-year-old daughter and I were affected most by the lunch counter exhibit.
You sit at a replica of a whites-only lunch counter in the Deep South. You place your palms on the counter. You put on headphones and close your eyes.
Then comes an auditory simulation of what it was like to be in a sit-in during the Civil Rights Era.
The simulation takes about 90 seconds. It feels longer.
You hear crashing glass, taunts, threats of physical violence, name-calling and eventually, sirens.
“What you doing here, boy?” sneers a recording of a frightening heckler breathing loudly in your ear.
Your counter stool vibrates like it’s being kicked.
No wonder the exhibit is recommended for children ages 10 and older.
The exhibit’s upshot: it helps us understand how strong the non-violent protesters had to be in order to endure such abuse.
That’s one reason why I wanted my daughter to experience it.
Her immediate reaction was more of an attempt to comfort herself and perhaps me: “It’s not real,” she said afterwards, reaching for my shaky hand.
It’s not real—a phrase the Civil Rights activists didn’t have the privilege of telling themselves as they suffered violence and arrest to desegregate the South.
Of course, she was referring to the fact that it was a museum exhibit, a simulation, not that the peaceful protesters weren’t treated that way.
How we wish we could brush off this scary simulation as if it was as imaginary as Disney’s Haunted Mansion.
But that world of Jim Crow was real and beyond menacing. My daughter understands that better after the lunch counter exhibit. We need exhibits like this one to remind ourselves and our children of that.
After all, remembering means not repeating.
Built smack in the middle of Atlanta’s downtown tourist attractions on land donated by Coke-Cola, the museum is surrounding by the World of Coca-Cola Museum, Georgia Aquarium and CNN.
Amidst all that, it’s difficult to imagine the White and Colored signs of that grim, not-so-long-ago separate and unequal South.
Which is all the more reason to take the next generation to see all the center has to teach.
Our kids need to delve into the museum's portrayal of Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With” of little 6-year-old Ruby Bridges integrating William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960.
They need to climb the museum stairs of a mock Lorraine Motel to the second story balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot in Memphis, Tenn.
They need to pray in the museum's solemn room that honors the four young girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. Stained class windows depict each little girl with her name: Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, Denise.
Because although the lunch counter and all the rest are just exhibits, the oppression and hatred they represent are all too real.
Not going to Atlanta anytime soon? The Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum in Savannah encompasses three floors of photographic and interactive exhibits, including an NAACP Organization exhibit, a fiber optic map of 87 significant civil rights sites and events, a lunch counter where sit ins occurred, and segregation exhibits.
Contact Anne Hart at email@example.com. Follow on Instagram at southernmamas