Georgia plans to build a “We Exhibit – You Decide” racial strife museum atop Stone Mountain to address the state’s long and troubled history of discrimination against dozens of minorities and blacks by making it a tourist attraction.
The museum will offer exhibits on both sides of the controversy over civil rights: people for them, and people against them. And, instead of passing judgement, the museum will allow people to decide for themselves, said Georgia Governor Nathan Deal in an afternoon press conference.
“I’m just beside myself with satisfaction that we have found a way to resolve a conflict some people have called insoluble, by presenting both sides of the issue, Civil Rights, versus racism, human decency, versus bigotry, hate versus happiness, and doing it all under one roof in a way the entire family can enjoy,” said Deal.
“The time has come for healing. The time has passed for judging.”
Deal has been in a difficult spot lately trying to balance the concerns of Civil Rights groups – who say the mountain and its famous carving of three Confederate heroes perpetuate hate and glorifies and endorses racism and slavery – against the concerns of members of his own Republican Party, who don’t have any.
Recent calls to install a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on top of the mountain, and a planned Ku Klux Klan rally in November to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the rebirth of that group, have only heightened tensions and deepened racial divides.
“This is a stench-remover from race relations in Georgia,” said Ted Phillips, a GOP consultant who advised Deal on the plan. “It’s like opening the windows after you cooked fish.”
Others aren’t quite so sure.
“So Deal makes this deal and his answer to the hard question ‘Do you want Georgia to maintain its reputation, 150 years after the close of the Civil War, as the all-inclusive last resort of racism in America, is ‘Come on Down!’?” said Bill Nelson a consultant to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Montgomery, Ala.
“Are they going to sell sheets?”
The state has been working on the plan in secret for weeks as it struggled to come up with a name that addresses all the issues without coming off as preachy about what’s right, and what’s wrong, since racism is simply a matter of choice, said officials.
“Focus groups absolutely loved “We Exhibit – You Decide,” said Deal spokesman Fred Sanders. “They said it has a news feel, a familiarity they couldn’t quite put their finger on, which, in our mind, is perfect. The one thing we really don’t want to do is blur the message.”
Officials said they’re still figuring out what exhibits will be presented in the 12,000 square foot museum that will cost $100 million to build and is expected to open in early 2017. But at least two are certainties said spokesman Sanders.
“MLK – the guy’s a lock,” said Sanders. “He did so much for his people, took a bullet for his people, so there’s going to be lots of stuff about him. The other guy is Governor Lester Maddox, who managed to take the racism of the 1960s and, despite all the great achievements of the Civil Rights movement, and the assassination of its revered leader, Martin Luther King Jr., still brought hatred and bigotry roaring into the 1970s.
“Whatever side you’re on, you’ve got to admit — that’s transcendent.”
The late Georgia governor, who gained national prominence as an Atlanta restauranteur who chased off black customers with a pick handle, was almost as famous for riding a bicycle backwards as he was for his renowned bigotry, said Sanders.
That bicycle, and the way Maddox rode it during his years in office (1966-1970), are the keys to making the museum work, according to state officials.
“It’s all about balance, about establishing a tone, like the first scene in a movie,” said Sanders. “The establishing shot. Do you have Maddox hitting somebody in the head with a pick handle? Or do you have him riding his bicycle backwards and – figuratively — taking the entire state of Georgia backwards with him?”
Sanders said museum officials ran that question past focus groups.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you it wasn’t a close call,” said Sanders. “It was. Very close. But, by a narrow margin, most Georgians, when asked, would prefer to see Lester Maddox ride his bicycle backwards than hit somebody with a pick handle.”
The museum will also have Klan robe displays and photos of burning torches juxtaposed with photographs of Martin Luther King and John Lewis and Andrew Young in their Civil Rights days, reiterating the theme of “We Exhibit – You Decide.”
State officials said admission will be $15, but will be discounted for groups that historically have been discriminated against in Georgia.
Blacks, gays, Native Americans, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Catholics, Asians, and Hispanics (and 17 other groups listed on the State Tourism Department’s web site), will only have to pay $3. That includes a free soft drink.
“We think that’s a fair and balanced accommodation,” said Sanders.
Others, not so sure.
“So, in exchange for two hundred years of slavery, racism and lynchings I’m getting a Coke and smile?” said Southern Poverty Law Center’s Nelson. “Couldn’t spring for popcorn?”