On 4 April 1968, 48 years ago today, civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. Our visit to the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, was an eye opener for us about this tragic event and a dark period in American history.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words and we captured something that was illegal a few decades ago; two school kids, black and white, boy and girl, stood side by side in a public building. Together they’re reading the ‘Jim Crow’ segregation laws that once regulated the South of the USA. Laws that sparked the civil rights movement, a period in history that has benefitted these kids in the future. For me this picture embodies the outcome of that struggle.
Fighting Jim Crow
Jim Crow was not an actual person but a set of laws introduced in 1877 that stipulated the segregation of black and white people. For instance, “The schools for white children and the schools for negro children shall be conducted separately.” Up until the mid 1960s the boy and girl we photographed would not have been permitted even to attend the same school.
We were inside the Center for Civil and Human Rights when we took that picture, a museum in the heart of Atlanta, Georgia, a state once governed by Jim Crow laws. This museum is especially educational for us as non-Americans, as we learned about the country’s fight for racial equality.
It tells how a century after the emancipation of slaves, black people of the South remained second-class citizens, shackled by Jim Crow laws and deep-rooted cultural traditions.
A quote by civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King perfectly surmises the motive for the uprising. “You know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled by the iron feet of oppression.”
Woolworths Diner Lunch Counter Sit-In
The exhibits are plain, honest and hard hitting, they include interactive videos and audio files. The museum does not shy away from illustrating the atrocities black people suffered during the Jim Crow era; the stories put a lump in my throat.
The most powerful exhibit that literally left us shaking was the simulation of a lunch counter sit-in, a replica of a segregated Woolworths diner where non-violent protests took place in the early 60s.
You are to sit to the counter, wear a headset, place your hands flat on the table and close your eyes. Through the headset you hear people enter the diner, they start shouting threats, mock you, become aggressive, nasty. Dishes are smashed, voices come so close the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. They bang the counter which you feel through your hands and your chair actually shudders from a simulated kick. It’s hard not to flinch and leave your seat even though it’s not real. The test is to see how long you can last.
It’s extremely effective at conveying the intimidating sense of the physical and mental experiences those courageous protestors endured, standing up against racial discrimination.
Fed up with these conditions a growing number of activists drew the segregation issue to media attention attracting not only domestic but international awareness via bus boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins and the March on Washington where Dr King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. These actions helped to end segregation and in 1965 the Jim Crow laws were revoked.
The centre in Atlanta also focuses on 4 April 1968, the day the world stopped when Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. Again the museum doesn’t hold back on gory details, which gave me more lumps in my throat.
Assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr – 4 April, 1968
Dr King was campaigning for economic equality in Memphis where he gave his last speech, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” He was shot outside his motel room. Video clips relive the moments his death was announced and the public outcry that followed.
Graphic pictures of his fallen body and his spilled blood being cleaned off the balcony speak more than a thousand words. Some of which came from his wife, Coretta Scott King: “If you give up your life to a cause in which you believe, and if it is right and just, and if your life comes to an end as a result of this, then your life could not have been spent in a more redemptive way. I think that is what my husband has done.”
Center for Civil and Human Rights
The legacy of Dr King, the lunch counter sit-ins and the bus boycotts is evident right there, where a black boy and a white girl can visit a museum together on a school trip and be oblivious to any other way. A picture is worth a thousand words…
To give perspective on how bad the Jim Crow laws were, I’ve listed few.
“It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together any game of pool or billiards.
“Train cars or divisions provided for white or colored passengers shall be marked in plain letters in a conspicuous place, ‘For White’ or ‘For Colored.’
“The legislature shall never pass any law to legalise any marriage between any white person and a negro or a descendent of a negro.
“No business should serve food to white and coloured people in the same room, unless they are separated by a solid partition and a separate entrance is provided for each compartment.”