As its name suggests, the Center for Civil and Human Rights, which opens to the public on Monday, is about two struggles—the American one that was fought primarily in the South in the latter half of the twentieth century, and the worldwide one that involves oppressed peoples in distant (and not-so-distant) lands. While there’s an obvious thematic linkage between the American Civil Rights Movement and the broader human rights one, the line between them must have been a challenge for the Center’s designers to straddle. One has a built-in narrative, with a beginning and middle (if not yet an ending), and the other requires navigating the vast space beneath the human rights umbrella, whether it’s oppressed women in Africa, child laborers in Pakistan, or tortured activists in Burma.
The museum’s solution, as we saw in a media preview today, is brilliant in its simplicity. From the airy atrium, where you’re greeted by a sprawling collage of human rights posters from around the world, you have a decision to make: Start with the civil rights struggle, which will lead you through segregation, Jim Crow laws, the Freedom Riders, the March on Washington, the King assassination, and then seamlessly into the broader human rights exhibits, or start with human rights and go back in time, ending with the faces of segregation in the mid-twentieth-century South. Whatever direction you choose, you’ll pass other museum guests taking the opposite route, and you’ll inevitably hear conversations about what lies ahead. And no matter your choice, what lies ahead will be moving, educational, infuriating, and invariably heartbreaking.
There are dozens of installations worth mentioning (and be sure to visit the rotating selections of correspondence and ephemera from the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Collection on the bottom floor), but two experiences more than any other will stay with me. The first is a reproduction of a 1960s lunch counter, which Freedom Riders sought to desegregate through civil disobedience. The obvious display would be a video or photographic installation, with perhaps some testimonials, but at this museum curator George C. Wolfe conceived a particularly immersive way to experience what the Riders did. Museum officials reproduced an actual counter, where you’re invited to sit with your hands on the table, looking ahead where you can see your own reflection. But first, you put on a pair of headphones, which shuts out the noise around you. Within seconds, you hear a chorus of angry voices, coming seemingly from everywhere—your left, your right, behind you, some moving from one ear to the other, like a circling viper. “I’m gonna kill you,” is typical. There are crashing sounds, too, and you get some idea of the courage it took to simply sit down at a lunch counter in the Deep South not that many years ago.
Within the civil rights portion of the museum is a solemn memorial to the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. Above a pile of charred wood meant to evoke the wreckage of that awful day in 1963 are four stained glass windows, each featuring the name and likeness of Addie, Cynthia, Denise and Carole. At today’s preview were two women with personal connections to that September morning. One, Katrina Robertson Reed, is cousin to Carole Robertson, who was fourteen when she was killed. “They identified her from a ring she was wearing,” Reed said. The other, Barbara Cross, is the daughter of John Cross, who was pastor of 16th Street Baptist, where white supremacists planted dynamite on a time delay. Cross herself had left her wallet in the bathroom, which took the brunt of the explosion. She easily could have been among the dead, but as she explained, an adult had told her just minutes before that she couldn’t go fetch it yet. “They said my obedience saved my life,” she said.
Click here for the detailed preview of the Center in our June 2014 issue.