I stumbled into the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center today, realizing the tiny kiosk of an entrance wasn't just housing for a brochure wrack or water fountain. My accidental discovery of a portal that sits invisibly in the shadow of the great castle beside it lead me down a winding staircase to an underground world of riveting exhibits -- including one that should be seen by everyone who thinks Barack Obama's election means it's time to stop talking about how we can improve racial relations ... if they can stomach the sight of a black man's blood spilling across the sidewalk.
The "Road To Freedom" drew me in because its focus -- photographs of the Civil Rights movement from 1956-1968 -- hit close to home. A Georgia boy who's a product of the New South, I knew I'd recognize many of the subjects. They're heroes to people like me and I've had the fortune to meet several of them. The exhibit itself is presented by Atlanta's High Museum of Art and some of the photos are being displayed for the first time.
Enter the exhibit and you are confronted by a nearly life-sized photograph of Martin Luther King Jr., and his wife Coretta marching toward you. All sound disappears as you get lost in the inspiring, and sometimes gruesome, display of black and white photos. Initially, I got lulled into happiness: There's a photo of a baby-faced Julian Bond, another of King standing in front of a portrait of Gandhi. There's a shot of King deep in concentration with his friends John Lewis, who would become an Atlanta congressman, and Andrew Young, who would become my hometown's mayor.
The levity didn't last.
I saw the National Guard snatch a photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee out of the hands of protesters. I absorbed shots of Rosa Parks getting arrested, a white man hitting a black reporter on the head while the valiant Little Rock 9 put their lives on the line.
I watched another white man pour cleaning agents into a swimming pool in Florida while black swimmers tread for equality. Police dogs tore into the flesh of another young African-American man, smoke poured out of a Freedom Rider bus, and James Meredith took a sniper's bullet. Police stung protesters with water cannons. White men attacked a group of black people who had the audacity to try to spend money in stores.
Ought of nowhere, I caught a glimpse of King sitting on the floor of his home relaxing with his family: Coretta and his daughter sat on the couch while King kept his son from wandering away with a hula hoop. I don't think I have ever seen an image of King smiling. It's almost hard to imagine a martyr experiencing moments like regular people but it felt good to think there was some joy in his life.
Several shots of a skinny Jesse Jackson threw me off, too, including one of him leading a poor people's march in front of the Washington Monument. He has been a headline-chasing demagogue for so long that I had forgotten he was once a more real person capable of independent thought. Though I was honored to meet him in my college days, I had tuned him out for ages -- but I had been thinking about him a lot since television caught him crying during Obama's inauguration. He became more human to me again.
I have also been thinking a lot about the Dr. Joseph Lowery, the reverend who gave the benediction at Obama's inauguration. I had the honor of working with Rev. Lowery on a particular crusade for justice earlier in this decade and found him to be one of the finest human beings I have ever met. On January 20th, I couldn't stop wondering what must have been going through his mind as he thought about America on the National Mall when King shared his dream and America on the National Mall as Obama took the oath of office.
A friend of mine watching the ceremonies on TV with her nine-year-old son and some of his friends seemed to have it figured out. "Obama made King's dream come true," one of them said. "No," countered another, "the American people did."
I'm not sure which side Lowery would take, but he, Jackson, and Lewis did all answer the repeatedly asked question from reporters about whether they thought 40 years ago that a black man (or even a bi-racial one) would ever be elected president of the United States. They all said yes but they just didn't know when. It's hard for me to imagine they really thought that back then -- believed yes, but thought, no. How could it not have seemed preposterous at the time?
My train of thought came to a halt when I looked up and saw a shot of an unknown black man face down on a New Jersey sidewalk, blood pouring out of his skull, across the cement and onto the street.
America has certainly come a long way since then, as President Obama and Dr. Lowery can attest. Just because one dream has been achieved, though, doesn't mean we should stop talking about the sacrifices people made to get us here. We should remember the non-violent marchers and the boy-cotters, the students and the swimmers ... all the folks who took a beating or surrendered their lives to help America cross a literal and a figurative bridge to become a nation where more people who don't look alike can get along, and where everybody has an equal right to pursue all the happiness and freedom our country offers.
One of the best things we can do to honor their memory is continue to confront our own prejudices and encourage our friends and families to the same. One dream may be realized but we still have the chance to make it more concrete. More permanent. We can make it come true for increasing numbers of people, too.
We can also visit exhibits like the "Road To Freedom", even if like racism they're sometimes hidden in plain sight on the very Mall where America's greatest dream was born.