ATLANTA — I am not one to waste time on vacation. So when my husband, Jack, and I found ourselves in Atlanta with a day to spend between visiting relatives and flying back to Boston, I came with a list. It included fried chicken and grits.
But first we checked out two Atlanta institutions, separated by a patch of grass, that represent two very different pieces of American history and culture. One is a tribute to soda — actually, to the Coke brand — and the other a harsh reminder of this country’s segregated past.
It turned out to be a day of extremes.
I had read about the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and was eager to see how the South thinks about its history. Being new, the center, which opened in June, is interactive and visually stunning. And the content of the exhibits will stay with you for a while. They include an impressive collection of Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers and personal items. King, I had forgotten, was from Atlanta. It’s powerful to see his words — why he fought for civil rights, why he opposed the Vietnam War — in his own handwriting.
The museum’s main floor is a trip to the South of the ’50s. Several old TVs play recordings of white supremacists — including congressmen and other public officials — giving speeches and interviews. One wall details the racist laws that used to rule the South. A central theme: no racial intermarriage.
There are pictures of African-American children being taunted on their way to school. There is a mural of mug shots, faces of the activists arrested for championing equal rights. There are videos of the violence the Freedom Riders encountered as they traveled through hostile crowds across the South.
A centerpiece of the gallery is the re-created lunch counter where visitors can sit, wear headphones, and endure a barrage of verbal insults, like many young African-Americans did during the civil rights movement when they peacefully demanded to be served at the same counter as whites. A clock times how long you can take the abuse. I was not anxious to try this, but others stood in line to try. Some stayed at the counter for several minutes. One woman stood after just a few seconds, shaking her head as she walked away.
The upper level of the museum chronicles human rights struggles around the world, by women, children, Jews, gays, and other oppressed groups. The saddest thing is that many of these struggles continue. The museum even dedicates a wall to current dictators.
It’s heavy stuff. But Doug Shipman, chief executive of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, told me he wants these exhibits to inspire people. “We hope they get a sense for the fact that individuals can make a difference,” Shipman said.
Some of it is truly uplifting. I loved the video splashed across a big white wall of the famous speeches delivered at the March on Washington. I saw recordings of King speaking when I was a kid in school, but seeing him as an adult was a new experience — a lot more goosebumps this time.
This place is worth a visit. It will make you uncomfortable at times. It should.
We took a break at a little cafe outside the museum. As we paid for a couple of sandwiches, the friendly woman behind the counter asked, “Would you like to try a Coke cupcake?” I was intrigued, but settled instead for a chocolate float — a scoop of chocolate ice cream submerged in a tall glass of Coke. It tastes exactly how it sounds. And with bellies full of this sweet treat, Jack and I headed to the World of Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola was developed by an Atlanta pharmacist in 1886 and soon became a hit. The Coca-Cola Co. has built a shrine to the popularity of the brand. You will find no cautions about sugar addiction or childhood obesity here. This place is all about happiness. Jugglers and magicians scattered around the museum implored us to smile. Even before we were allowed into the exhibits, we watched a short movie with scenes of a man proposing to his sweetheart in a hot air balloon, a soldier coming home to his family after deployment, and other sentimental nuggets. What this film had to do with soda I still don’t know.
If you don’t mind kitsch, flashy displays, and long lines, the World of Coca-Cola is for you. We were photographed and given “security clearance” before being packed into a small room to gaze at a big vault guarding the secret recipe for Coca-Cola. There is some explanation of how Coke was sold and marketed over the years, with old soda fountains, bottling machines, and advertisements on display. But there is no deep dive into the history of soda or modern consumer culture.
The highlight has to be the tasting room. There are dozens of sodas to try, all made by the Coca-Cola Co. and sold in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. My favorite was a yellow drink called Bibo Candy Pine-Nut from South Africa. The most unsettling flavor belongs to Beverly, a fizzy drink once sold as an aperitif in Italy. It is bitter and medicinal, at best. Jack called it “assertive.”
A tip: Don’t wear your favorite shoes here. It takes effort moving from one crowded beverage dispenser to the next in this tasting room, where soda spills so often that your feet stick to the floor.
With more time in Atlanta, maybe I would have visited these museums on different days to allow my brain to reboot in between. Both of these attractions deserve your time, one because it’s important to face reality, the other because it’s sometimes fun to escape reality.
Shipman said despite the very different experiences they offer, it makes sense for the World of Coca-Cola and the Center for Civil and Human Rights to sit so close together. The Georgia Aquarium also shares the same park.
“I think they complement each other,” Shipman said. “And they’re also very Atlanta. When people think of Atlanta, they think of Dr. King and Coke.”
And fried chicken. Later that night, I got my chicken, and it was as crispy and delicious as I had hoped. The next morning with eggs, I ordered my first-ever cheesy grits.