Black History Month is a good time to reflect on the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders, so we visited several sites in Atlanta related to Martin Luther King, Jr., and civil rights. We found things at all these that spoke to children of various ages, but particularly to teens. And the experience led to some interesting conversations, especially after we visited the Center for Civil and Human Rights.
We began at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, which includes two blocks of an Atlanta neighborhood known as Sweet Auburn. Some of the most significant buildings are open to visit, while others are privately owned and identified by exhibit panels that give more information about the history of this still active community. Among the buildings you can tour is the house where King was born and lived with his extended family until he was 12.
King’s father was the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, a building two blocks down Auburn Avenue from his home. Here, a guide gave a lively presentation of the church’s history and some of the events that took place here (including the fatal shooting of King’s mother during a service, eight years after King’s own assassination).
Between the church and house are the tombs of King and his wife Coretta King, surrounded by a reflecting pool. On the corner near the house stands the Historic Fire Station No. 6, the first fire station in Atlanta to be racially integrated. More than any other place in the historic site, the fire station catches the interest of younger children, with its 1927 fire truck and exhibits on early fire fighting. Volunteers there engage well with youngsters, too, and tell stories about living in the neighborhood.
Atlanta, we discovered at the new Center for Civil and Human Rights, played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The center does more than simply memorialize the epic years and the struggle to move from the era of Jim Crow laws to equal rights for all. It begins dramatically, by immersing visitor in the day-to-day sights and sounds of segregation, with period television broadcasts promoting racist “science” and vivid scenes of early protesters.
A reconstruction of the Greyhound bus Freedom Riders rode in 1961 is brought to life by recorded personal accounts of participants and a film shot inside the bus. Visitors can sit at a replica of the lunch counter where the first courageous people staged a sit-in, and listen to the threats and insults that were hurled at the protesters. Personal accounts, videos and interactive experiences bring the struggle vividly to life.
But the center carries the story beyond the past accomplishments, showing how it was the beginning of a new consciousness and a new empowerment to take the quest and struggle for human rights worldwide. Exhibits reflect on Apartheid in South Africa, women’s and children’s rights, human trafficking, child labor, even bullying, with tributes to those who have spoken out and crusaded for change. Special exhibits highlight themes, such as the ways athletes use their celebrity for social justice.
We each left with our own piece of the Center’s message — a challenge and inspiration to be more conscious of the rights of people everywhere, beginning in our own schools and community.