I took my time leaving The Chastain Farms this morning, but still made it out before 10 o’clock. It was raining most of my drive, but it let up as I entered town. I was hungry and thought about getting food, but instead went right to the Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta.
What an amazing museum. The security guard told me that I needed to make sure to sit at the lunch counter. I must have looked confused (and hopeful… I was hungry) so he reiterated, “The lunch counter. Make sure you sit at it, it’s an experience.” I smiled and said, “Ok”. Walking away, I remembered where I was and realized that he was talking about an exhibit. I walked in, started to read the plaques and walls, and noticed a line along the left wall. Children were lined up and some were sitting on chairs with headphones. I didn’t want to wait for anything where there were lots of children, and was relieved when I realized there was a way around them. I moved that way, but then realized that they were waiting for the lunch counter. The line wasn’t long at this point, so I got in it.
There were four stools at a counter with a dark screen in front that had a timer glowing at face level. When a chair opened up, I approached it to sit down. I heard one of the chaperones say, “close your eyes, it’s better that way.” There were places on the counter to put your hands. I put on the headphones, heavy duty ones, and then placed my hands on the counter. A voice told me that this was meant to simulate what it was like for the protestors at the Woolworth lunch counter in North Carolina in 1960, and to see how long I could keep calm. I closed my eyes.
I heard nearby footsteps and shuffling, a door closing. I almost opened my eyes to turn and see who was there, it sounded so real, but then I realized that it was part of the recording coming from the headphones. I am in Woolworths sitting at the lunch counter. Men with deep voices start yelling at me to leave the counter. They are shouting, “You better get up boy.” They are at my neck, in my ears. I can hear their lips smacking as they talk and their sharp breaths between threats. I feel the stool shaking. I feel and hear someone next to me being dragged from the seat and beaten. The men say, “You’re next, boy, if you don’t leave right now. We gon’ stab that fork there right in your throat.” More threats, screaming, stool shaking.
My hands are on the counter. I am taking slow deep breaths. There are few moments I can recall being this afraid, but never have I ever been so afraid of bodily harm, of being brutally attacked by men so angry, so righteous in their hatred of me. If I leave, they win, but if I stay, they might kill me. There is nothing to stop them; they have the law on their side. I am so afraid, I feel tears coming and I want to leave. I think about taking off the headphones, but I can’t. I open my eyes and see the timer at 1:14. I close my eyes. My hands are on the counter. I take breaths. The men are right in my face, screaming at me while my peer is being beaten on the ground beside me. I feel their hot breath on my neck, envision their fists and their hate-filled eyes. I open my eyes as the voices fade away. A female voice tells me that this simulation was created to honor the brave protestors that sat at segregated lunch counters during the civil rights movement.
I am near shaking and fighting back tears as I take off the headphones, slowly putting them back on their stand. I turn to leave, checking to see if anyone is watching me. They’re not. The others had already left the simulation, other people were waiting to experience it. I slowly walked away into the next room where videos of the March on Washington are projected onto a wall. I see photos of the organizers and contributors of the march. I am still shaken. I want to cry. I watch the video on the wall. Mahalia Jackson sings How I Got Over. I turn to the other wall and see songboards. I pick up the receiver and click samples of each song. They summon tears and slow breaths. I am overwhelmed.
Learning about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in school, I understood at an intellectual level what had happened, but I had not, until now, understood the reality they were addressing. People put themselves in danger of direct physical threat day after day because their reality of oppression and second-class citizenship were enforced by cultural and legal structures that did would not respond to words. Their government did not care about them, did not even hear them, though it might pretend. Yet people remained calm in the face of inherent danger and showed up to march because their lives and their children’s lives necessitated it.
In another room, footage of Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral played on a screen. His eulogy was a speech of his own. Yet again brought to tears, I moved into the next room to see memorials for men, women, and children that were killed by members of the KKK and other violent white people. In most cases, those found guilty of killing these people were not brought to justice, if they were even tried in court. This brought to mind today’s killings of black people at the hands of white police officers; the same violence, a different excuse, the same result.
I am floored by the bravery of those who sat at lunch counters and walked peacefully to ask for civil rights and human rights in the 1960s. I am devastated by the similarities between those times and today. I am inspired by those marching and working for immigrant, women, black, environmental, and human rights. I wish everybody in this country could sit at that lunch counter as I did today, to feel what it is like to fear for your life and know that your country encouraged and embraced that behavior and would not punish your aggressors or murderers because your life did not mean as much as theirs. I will never again take for granted the feeling of security that I have in the belief that my neighbors and my government will actively fight for my safety. There is so much room for improvement. While people may not fear for their lives or bodies (there are many that still do, and must), they fear for their well-being and survival. We have a duty to our fellow humans to ensure that they never feel that their neighbors and government want them poor, sick, or dead. I do not think that is an absurd notion, do you?
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”