History left me shaking (NFTY Convention Post 3)

If you read this blog, or if you know me—at all—then you probably know that I care a lot about human rights. And I’m from the South, and Jewish. So the civil rights movement of the 60s has been deeply ingrained in me since I was ten years old, as something to know, to understand, and to learn from.

I’ve wanted to visit the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (a museum in Atlanta) ever since I heard of its existence to begin with.

Las weekend, as a part of the National NFTY Convention, I got the opportunity to go.

Words cannot describe the experience, not in full.

I’ve been trying. I’ve written several poems, had countless discussions with some of the people who were at the center with me.

I’m still processing the experience.

The museum itself is divided into three levels.

The top floor is dedicated to current, unresolved human rights crises, and there is a station to record your own human-rights centered message. There are lists of aid organizations, ways to get involved. There are maps, personal stories from around the world that people have recorded, stories of trial, of betrayal, of survival, of hope, each featuring a different issue.

The bottom floor contains a small library of Martin Luther King jr. speeches. Not the recordings, not transcripts. I mean real, physical pieces of paper, covered in his handwriting, or words typed out on his typewriter, his signature on each one.

Original documents, paper that has yellowed. Tangible—through glass—pieces of a history close to my heart.

In this room, a screen dominates the furthermost wall. The words “I have a dream” drift across it, in more languages than I could count. The other walls are covered in MLK jr. quotes, including the iconic ““Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream,” and the quote that I live by, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

It is a room of words, words of struggle and of triumph. They are the words on which my version of the South was built. Without these words, my life and the life of anyone else who lives here would be very different, and significantly more hostile.

But I read and I listen. Specifically as a Jew in the South, I am particularly attuned to issues of racism and anti-semitism. I know about the Temple bombing and its significance today. I know the story of Leo Frank, a name mostly forgotten by my own generation. I do not forget that it wouldn’t take much for this peace I experience to collapse.

And that is what ties the middle floor, the main floor of the museum, together with the rest of it for me.

It is the floor that brings the point home.

The group I was with began with this floor, and then we came back to it again, because it was so impactful. The reason it hit so hard, so close to home for me, was a simulation experience. A lunch counter. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the lunch counter sit –ins of the South. Nonviolent protests, wherein people sat at white-only lunch counters until they were served.

These people withstood injury, screaming, threats, humiliation— pretty much every mechanism of degradation that exists.

Most people think that simply “sitting still” is easy.

I know that I’ve thought so a few times.

Now, after this simulation, I know that I will never think that thought again.

At first, it seems innocuous.

There is a small, simple queue line. A small simple platform, with a set of chairs with high backs—and a counter, with sensors for you to place your hands.

You step up to the counter, and sit in the chair, read the instructions written on the wall. You will put on the headphones witting on the counter in front of you. You will place your hands on the sensors for as long as you can manage it. The simulation ends the moment you remove your hands.

You slide the headphones on.

At first, you hear only static.

Then a rough, harsh voice slides in, tense with indirect threat. But it’s quiet. You think that maybe this won’t be too bad.

But more voices join in, begin threatening you, promising to stab you in the throat with the fork at your place setting if you do not get up. Your chair begins jolting, as the men—all men—in your headphones describe that they are kicking you and will eventually kill you. You, as a teenage girl, are only thankful that they do not describe the things that they would do to your body. But you can imagine it all too well. They scream at you, “get up, get up.”

You fix your eyes on the clock, counting your time at the sensors with red dashes. it is the only way to keep yourself from closing your eyes, you think, because if you close your eyes then you will begin to picture the scenario, and you can’t bring yourself to do that more vividly than you already are doing.

One minute, thirty-six seconds.

The recording ends with sirens, and you doubt that the person at the lunch counter managed to survive or not.

You look at your hands and realize that you are shaking.

One minute and thirty-six seconds.

Half an hour later, you still tremble, and you jump at the sound of chairs scraping on the ground, when you see a metal fork at dinner. Someone bumps your seat by accident, and you discover that you do not have enough moisture in your throat to scream, no matter how much you want to.

One minute, thirty-six seconds.

People in real life lasted five to eight hours.

I did this simulation twice. The second time, I knew what was coming, and while I might have been able to brace myself for it better, I was also dreading it even more.

It was one of the most powerful things I have ever been through.

I still can’t quite capture it. I have come to the conclusion that it is not a thing for words. It is a thing for experiencing, and one that I believe everyone should go through, for the sake of learning, of knowing, and of understanding—even if it’s only on this tiny scale.

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