Back when I lived in New York City, people would ask me what it was like to live in Atlanta. I heard the question so often I developed a standard response.
Photo by Andrew Thomas Lee
I’d say: “You know that old saying, ‘It’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there’? Well, Atlanta’s just the opposite. It’s a great place to live, but you wouldn’t want to visit there.”
This was my rather feeble attempt to express something that had gnawed at me during my years of living in Atlanta — the notion that there was no single place to visit that truly captured the heart of the entire city.
Other Southern cities were different. In Memphis, a tourist could easily touch its music-loving, barbecue-funky heart with visits to landmarks like Sun Studios or the Rendezvous. In New Orleans, the city’s genuinely unique, polyglot culture had created hundreds of ways for the visitor to feel its beating heart: through its foods, its architecture or that infectious Second Line beat that comes right out and says, “This is New Orleans music.”
And thinking about that begged other questions. What exactly was the heart of Atlanta? Where did one go to actually feel it beat? I suppose I’d grown up thinking that people thought the heart of Atlanta was in its rise from the ashes post-Civil War. But there were two problems with bringing that narrative to life for a visitor. One, it’s hard to see what remains of the ashes unless you do something hard, like go on a 10-mile hike through what remains of the Battle of Atlanta’s killing fields. And two, you wind up telling a story that goes something like this:
OK, our ancestors decided to fight a war that would allow them to keep people of color enslaved, and they lost that war, and in the process, my entire hometown got burned down.
Not exactly inspiring stuff.
But I knew — as did thousands of other Atlantans — that another story truly represented our city’s heart. Like the old tale, it was a story of struggle, but it was also a story of redemption, a story about a gift that Atlanta gave to the South, to America, and to the whole round world.
I also knew where that story began: on a half-mile stretch of Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta.
So when I moved back home and received out-of-town visitors, that’s where I took them. We’d drive or walk from Big Bethel AME Church at 220 Auburn, an African-American church whose roots reach all the way back to 1840, then eastward past Wheat Street Baptist Church at 359, and finally to Ebenezer Baptist at 407, just east of which lie the graves of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
These three churches, I would explain, gave birth to the American Civil Rights Movement. I would try to explain that in the 1960s, on this half-mile stretch of Auburn Avenue, America began to turn, to put aside its past and attempt to become a nation whose people, in the words of Dr. King, “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
But my feeble words never seemed enough. And it was hard to just walk or drive past three churches and a gravesite in that five-block stretch and really feel the magnitude of the idea that took shape there — that reconciliation could triumph over conflict, that non-violence could overcome violence. The heart of Atlanta was there on Auburn Avenue, but it was too big and too ethereal to really feel as you stood on the sidewalks. You couldn’t dance to it, like you could a New Orleans rhythm. You couldn’t taste it, like Memphis barbecue. But it was there.
When the Olympics came to town back in 1996, there appeared downtown (at no small cost and a considerable amount of upheaval) a new public green, Centennial Olympic Park. Sadly, it instantly became known not as a watershed in the history of downtown Atlanta, but as the site of a bombing by anti-gay and anti-abortion zealot Eric Rudolph.
But over time, as happens in cities, things began to spring up around the park, including two of Atlanta’s biggest tourist attractions: the Georgia Aquarium, which opened in 2005 and has drawn more than 11 million visitors since, and The World of Coca-Cola, which moved to its current location across Baker Street from the park, in 2007, and brought with it another million or so visitors a year.
But yesterday, something else opened over by that park, and for the rest of my days it will be the first place I take visitors to my city.
I am certainly no architecture critic. Nor am I capable of projecting the economic effects of our new National Center for Civil and Human Rights. I can only tell you how I felt — as a Southerner, as an Atlantan, and as a human — when I walked out of the place for the first time last week.
I felt like the heart of Atlanta had finally found a home — a place that assembles all the bits of history and all the ghosts of martyrs you could feel in the air on Auburn Avenue and makes them shockingly, unavoidably real.
To judge it as a museum is to judge it unfairly. A museum is where you go to see things that used to be. The Center takes you through history, because you need that knowledge, but it does not let you leave before it challenges you to act.
And though the Center will get funding from those who buy tickets to visit it, its function is not merely to be a tourist attraction. The Center will be a place where people from all over the world will gather to do the very difficult work of reconciliation, of helping to create Dr. King’s “beloved community,” over and over again, all over the world.
It will be the place where current and future generations of Southerners will bring their children and grandchildren to learn the unvarnished history of our region. And it will be the place where those young Southerners will start asking each other questions they need to ask. By its very nature, the Center somehow makes all those difficult conversations easier to have. The logic of its narrative is simple: When the truth is right in your face, it’s hard not to talk about it. And by talking about it, the process of non-violent reconciliation that began on Auburn Avenue will continue.
You could call the place a museum, and you’d be right but not wholly right. You could call it a tourist attraction, and you’d be right but not wholly right. To me, it almost feels like a temple, in the larger, secular sense: “the structure of thought, value, or belief that enshrines the spirit or essence of something.”
Photo by Andrew Thomas Lee