Sitting In

We all know about the Civil Rights Movement. We know the terms segregation, integration, and Jim Crow. Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. We sat at our desks in grade school, our hearts filling up as we watched Dr. King say he had a dream. The same hearts were heavy as we learned of his assassination. The protests, the signs, the water fountains—we know what happened. We know the history, right?

If there is one thing I’ve learned on my journey into academia, it’s that the public education system failed me in more ways than one. For starters, it never taught me about the privilege that I hold strictly due to the color of my skin, and it never taught me just how violent and vile the history of my white skin is.

I recently had the opportunity to visit The National Center for Civil and Human Rights with my senior seminar class. The museum is located in downtown Atlanta right next to the Aquarium and the World of Coke. If you’re a fellow Atlantean, you know exactly where that is. If you’re not a fellow Atlantean, you still probably know exactly where that is. Let’s talk about it.

Replicas of old fashioned televisions lined the room

From the moment you step into the first exhibit, the entire museum is immersive. The entryway is a short, segregated hallway with the words “white” and “colored” marking the walls on either side. I wish I had taken photos of that part (ugh). The first area is literally a room filled with hate—old fashioned television replicas were stacked throughout the room, displaying actual video footage of segregationists. The televisions were interactive and the dials turned to change the channel. It’s one thing to know that outward racism was accepted during this period, but it’s so much deeper to actually see the hate speech played on a television just as it would have been back then.

Stories of Segregationists During the Civil Rights Movement

A few of my classmates and I were very focused on this display of segregationists. We read every word. If you can, zoom in and read the captions beside these guys. It is important to know who these men are and the positions of power that they held in order to begin understanding just how institutionalized racism is. I am grateful that history holds evil and hate accountable. These men deserve a place in this museum, and they deserve every ounce of disdain that they receive.

Pictured left to right, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, William Smith, and Clarence Henderson. Greensboro, NC, February 2, 1960

Immediately following this room was the most immersive and jarring experience of the entire museum. When we talk about protesting during the Civil Rights Movement, we often times talk about the nonviolence movement that was led by Dr. King. Sit-ins were a popular form of peaceful protesting, and I thought that I understood how they worked prior to my visit.

A lunch counter sit-in simulation replicated the actual experience that protesters would have endured. The simulation combines sensory effects such as multidimensional audio and synchronized vibration to recreate the environment of an actual sit-in. The goal is to last for a full minute and forty seconds. When it was my turn, I sat down at the counter, put on the headphones, closed my eyes, and placed my hands on the counter. The first thing I heard was a reassuring voice saying something along the lines of “this is your first time…just stay calm and you’ll be alright.” Then it was violence. As soon as the audio picked up, I started sweating. The things I heard were cruel and so terrifying—I had to actually remind myself that I was in a museum and once the simulation was over, I was so visibly shaken that a staff member offered me a hug (she was super sweet). The biggest lesson that I learned from that experience was that I truly had no idea what it took, and I’ll never fully understand. The bravery and courage exemplified by those who fought for equality is greater than I ever could have imagined.

Stained glass portraits hang above Dr. King’s Eulogy for the Martyred Children

As I moved to the other exhibits, I realized how smart and profound of a decision it was to place the simulation in the very beginning of the museum. It forces you to interact with all of the other content while still carrying the weight of the sit-in experience. I immediately moved from the lunch counter to a memoriam of the four little girls who were murdered in the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Eighteen days after the March on Washington, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed during Sunday morning service. Four little girls named Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair were killed.

Portraits of Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson
Portraits of Denise McNair and Addie Mae Collins

Quotes from leading activists

There was so much content in the museum, I couldn’t possibly post about it all. After reflecting on the lives of the four little girls, I moved into a room that was dedicated to MLK as well as the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X. I stepped into a dark room with a screen playing clips of news that were alternating between bits of Dr. King’s speeches then immediately followed with news clips that succeeded his death. The four quotes, pictured left, were displayed on the wall. In the moment, I felt as though these quotes were intentionally selected to fit the ambiance of the room. If there is one thing each of these quotes have in common, it’s that they translate resiliency.

After going up a set of dimly lit stairs, I sat on a bench and watched video footage of Dr. King’s funeral. Behind the bench was a quote on the wall, spotlit in the midst of an otherwise dark room. The quote was from Coretta Scott King, MLK’s wife of fifteen years, speaking on behalf of her husband’s death. Her words were profound and hopeful.

Quote from Coretta Scott King on her husband’s death

The quote reads: “If you give 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.”

Reflecting on Dr. King’s life and legacy was impactful while in the presence of not only his work, but also the work of others that were inspired and encouraged by him. For me, Dr. King was always someone who I knew about. I knew his story, what he accomplished, and what he began. However, after visiting these exhibits in the museum, I felt as though I had only just encountered his legacy for the first time.

I wish I could write about the entire museum. I really do. This experience genuinely reshaped, challenged, and changed the way I approach both learning about and reflecting on the Civil Rights Movement. If you’re reading this, please visit the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. This link will take you straight to the online box office. It is such a profound preservation of history and I promise that you will be hard-pressed to find a better way of spending twenty bucks in the city. Immersion is important—especially when dealing with historical movements that we don’t always feel the weight of by reading about. As for me, a white woman who grew up in a predominantly white area, it is impossible for me to be able to understand these moments in history without taking it upon myself to dig deeper. It is my responsibility to dig further into the movements, into the names I never read in history books, and into myself in order to unpack the privilege that my skin color has given me, along the white supremacy that has shaped the society I’ve grown up in.