I’m going to try to not get too philosophical, political, what have you in this entry. TRY.
Some years ago, no matter how many, I got a call to work at an institution called Boston University. To work there as an instructor. Exactly 23 years after NOT becoming a student there, as I had wanted, suddenly I was asked to work there. So every day happily I take the BU shuttle to work, staring out the window. We always pass by Marsh Chapel, in front of which there’s a statue of a dove made of doves dedicated to Doctor Martin Luther King, proud BU alum. Dr King’s dissertation is even on view at the library.
The version of the fight for civil rights in America we get is a very sanitized one. There were peaceful protest. Dr King spoke gently and eloquently. Of course the rights were turned over. But that’s not how it was. Not at all how it was. I studied political science long enough to know that and to have realized that, but that didn’t really resonate with me until I went to the Civil Rights Center in Atlanta.
For me, the first sign I saw in the Civil Rights Center was very familiar. There was the red script logo of Solidarność, the Polish trade union that rose up against the communist Polish government in the early 1980s, spurring change and the ultimate collapse of a political and economic movement that ruled half the planet for 50 years. Oh and the reason why I grew up in the United States and not Poland. It was amazing to see it featured along with the US civil rights movement, side by side.
As you walk through the Civil Rights center, immediately you are struck by something. This is not a dry representation of artifacts of the civil rights struggle. This is a live museum where you actually feel the way that the people doing the protesting felt. This is a very different experience than being a bystander or just a museum goer. At the center, you hear the speeches but also the yelling, the screaming, the gun shots and violence the protesters heard. You can if you want sit at a lunch counter and experience what the protesters did as they sat at lunch counters in the south. They put headphones on you and for three minutes, you are pelted with insults. It’s harrowing. At first I thought — ok, this isn’t so bad but by minute two, the insults got worse. There were death threats in there. It was terrifying. I’ve been to so many museums in my life but never one where you got to feel exactly what people were going through, like in that place in Atlanta.
What struck me was that this was a center dedicated to people who just wanted the same rights as everyone else in their own country. The right to sit anywhere on a bus. The right to attend the same schools as their white counterparts. The right to be treated equally under the law, things that so many of us take for granted. I had never really understood what people had gone through just to have that. And as we’ve seen over the past few years, the work is far from done.
In one of the exhibits at the center, I spotted a picture of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first non-communist prime minister of Poland and a close friend of my uncle, who was part of the Polish anti-communism movement. Again, it was incredible to see him included there but I also thought that I wouldn’t be standing there were it not for the work of this man. The course of my life was fundamentally changed by the actions of that man.
We’re all recipients of the legacy of what the people in that museum did. We can never lose sight of that.