Civil Rights Memorials- Day One

| Oct 08, 2009

“Sweet Auburn”

Thursday, October 8, 2009
By Martin J. Holland

As we gathered for lunch at the Hampton Inn and Suites in downtown Atlanta, Dr. Dell Upton gave a wonderfully insightful lecture on memorials and the act ofcommemoration as a foundation to what we were about to experience over the next four days. Of particular interest was his observation that memorials often reflect the social, cultural and historical perspective not of the time that they were supposed to be marking, but rather of the current conditions of when they were actually being established. Thus memorials to the civil rights era that were constructed in the late twentieth century reflect the ideals and perspectives of the 1980’s and 1990’s that were interpretations of the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Applied on a broader level, Upton’s observation explains a great deal why sites like the World Trade Center Memorial in New York City, or the Memorial to Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania are still so hotly contested, and their cultural meanings still uncertain.

Professor Upton also noted in his lecture how the traditional forms of memorialization seem to be strangely out of place for the civil rights movement. In a systematic approach, Upton showed numerous examples of traditional memorial statuary, and revealed their reliance upon metaphors of military prowess and conquest for their meaning. The seated equestrian, the heroic lone figure, the group action pose— all find their respective origins in military conflict. Dr. Upton wondered just how appropriate such visual metaphors were for a movement that practiced nonviolence, and saw great success in mundane, yet critical actions such as voter registration, community organization and peaceful acts of civil disobedience.

Photo: Dell Upton giving his introductory lecture.

After the lecture and a substantial lunch we headed off to Auburn Avenue, which was and remains a center of black middle class life and culture. The act of racial segregation, combined with discriminatory business laws that intentionally restricted access to capital for African Americans, made Auburn Avenue a central node for the black middle class. It was here that Atlanta Life was based, an insurance company established by Alonzo Herndon in 1905 to provide African Americans with financial tools and security similar to those enjoyed by their white middle class counterparts. Professor Upton showed members of the study tour the numerous and complex spatial interrelationships that black businesses utilized before the civil rights movement to ensure that monies generated by black owned businesses would stay within the African American community, and how black reinvestment into AuburnAvenue was an absolute necessity given the overtly hostile attitudes and discriminatory practices by whites towards black owned businesses.

Photos: Atlanta Life then and now.

Auburn Avenue was also the birthplace and the final resting place of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We toured the home where he was born, and noted how, on that particular section of Auburn Avenue, there were a range of housing stock that encompassed the urban poor through to the wealthy. Our docent for the tour of Dr. King’s birthplace told the story that when Martin Luther King Jr. was a child, he saw first hand the wide financial disparity experienced by African Americans on this very street. On one side, small, two room, “shotgun homes” were the dominant housing stock, while on the other side of the street,large mansions were the norm. This inequitable relationship within the African American community stayed with Dr. King, and was a constant reminder of not only how far African Americans had come, but also how far was still left to go.

Photo: Dr. King’s Birthplace in Atlanta.

Photo: Small, shotgun homes on Auburn Ave.

Photo: The upscale homes just across the street from King’s birthplace.

Photo: The tombs for Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King.

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