“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, your life could not have been spent in a more redemptive way. I think that is what my husband has done.” – Coretta Scott King
I walked through the National Civil and Human Rights Museum in Atlanta today. It’s a full-sensory experience that immerses you in the sounds of conflict, the sights of the fight, the shifts in human culture, and helps you encounter a living sense of history.
With headphones on, sitting on a diner stool at a replica diner bar table, I experienced an audio simulation of enduring a lunch counter protest.
I sat with my hands on the counter, as the audio created the sonic experience of men surrounding me. They called me names, and spoke right into my ear, husky and venomous voices spitting at me from all sides. I could hear someone at the diner get dragged away, feet kicking on the tile floor while they attacked him, all the while the voices closest to me screamed at me, daring me to step up and fight back. They kicked my chair. They kicked it again. They roared at me to get up. The whole thing shook and rattled; haptic feedback on the museum’s stool was making it jolt, as violence erupted all around me.
I opened my eyes as the audio ended and saw my own face in the mirror.
I rose, recovering my breath, and stepped to the wall of 400 mugshots of willfully-arrested Freedom Riders, people who had allowed themselves to get taken to jail: faces of white people and black alike, joining the protest.
I stepped into a scene resembling Birmingham Jail, with Martin Luther King writing letters in the very spirit of the Apostle Paul, challenging his church to not give up.
To the March on Washington, where millions arrived and King delivered his extemporaneous “I have a dream” speech.
Into the assassination of King, at the Lorraine Hotel. The black metal stairs we walked up in the museum mimicked the same railings where he stood when he was shot, as neon from a replica hotel sign flashed.
Into a room simulating the church where his funeral took place, and we see that this man, who has inspired so much, and caused so much change, was simply gone, leaving his children and wife behind.
Did it end in victory?
Laws changed, yes, and changed the reality of many for the better. And yet from my encounter with Tony yesterday, the long-term effects of a long-term reality have yet to make their way to some communities that are still experiencing the long-lasting effects of trauma.
We might get the impression that in our world, that the fight is over. The Civil Rights movement has ended, and these events are in the past. But that was just the visible fight, the one with a spokesperson. The invisible fight is still taking place every day.
* * *
In the basement of the museum was a display of Martin Luther King Jr.’s letters, journals and plans. After the civil rights movement, he became involved in something called the Poor People’s Campaign. That movement has a 2020 version, organizing for June 20, 2020: a national call for moral renewal.
What other efforts might be happening in my own community and country that represent grassroots efforts to help create change? What might I participate in, or even start? How can my church play a meaningful role, as the network of churches did in MLK’s day? What might it look like to be a citizen working towards healthy change for today’s injustices?
I don’t know the answer, but I remain more open than ever to continue listening and partnering.