On a visit to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta this week I participated in an exhibit that simulates the experience of lunch counter sit-ins that helped integrate restaurants in the 1960s. Museum visitors sit, four at a time, at the counter and put on headphones. They place their hands on the counter and are instructed to close their eyes. “HOW LONG CAN YOU LAST?” is printed on the counter. There is a digital timer in front of each chair. The recording is about a minute and a half, but not everyone I saw made it that long.
At the beginning of the recording you hear words of encouragement through the headphones, a reminder to stay calm, as though from a fellow protestor, perhaps one who has already experienced what is about to come. Ordinary sounds of a busy restaurant follow but shortly you are ordered by phantom voices to get up from your seat. The voices – voices of angry white men with southern accents – get louder and angrier. Through haptic technology you then feel the sensation of your chair being kicked, and then the aural role play goes all to hell, as angry voices yell threats on all sides and you hear blows and pounding around you. It’s loud and it’s right in your ears.
Most people I observed jumped when the first kick came. Some people walked away from the counter teary, some looking a bit dazed, but none appeared unmoved.
This evening I read two New York Times opinion pieces about Trump’s undeniable racism. In “The Rot You Smell is a Racist Potus,” Charles Blow writes:
The mouth that demeans may not always be attached to the hand that destroys, but they are most assuredly connected in spirit and in spite.
In “The Real Problem With Trump’s Rallies,” Kevin Kruse points out comparisons between Trump’s and George Wallace’s rallies but remarks that the potentially deadly difference is that Trump, unlike Wallace, calls out individuals (and relishes in doing so, I would add). Some of those individuals have received serious threats of violence.
One thing that was clear from the civil rights exhibits I saw in the Center is the power in numbers. The freedom riders arrived regularly in southern cities, one busload after another, knowing the beatings they faced. The marchers in Selma advanced across the Edmund Pettus bridge even as they saw the violence unfolding before them. Hundreds of black men and women sat at the “white” lunch counters knowing they faced what some of us experienced through headphones for a minute and a half. At the lunch counter exhibit, participants only feel kicked; no one walks out bruised.
So I ask: What are you willing to do to battle racism and xenophobia in today’s America?