I was excited and scared to come to the South. Apart from New England, it was the only part of the country I’d never seen before. I had little idea what to expect, my mental picture of the region just a cluttered kaleidoscope of stereotypes. My grandfather in Albuquerque ground his teeth when I mentioned my upcoming sojourn to Dixieland. He warned me of the ignorance, the misplaced pride, the rampant fundamentalism of the old Confederacy. I found this odd considering that he grew up in the South, and most of his stories that I’ve read take place there.
Standing in a Walmart in Texarkana, Arkansas, I did catch a fair glimpse of the sort of trailer-trash imagery one might expect; a 40-year-old grandmother with a Christian t-shirt and tattoos up her neck buying a 24-pack of Keystone, etc. But was it that much different from stuff I’d seen in Wisconsin? Not really.
In fact I was struck by how much parts of the South reminded me of my home state. Maybe this was in part because I’d just spent so much time in the mountainous quasi-rainforest of the Cascades and the barren desert of the Southwest, but the dynamic here isn’t fundamentally different from where I’m from. The highways roll through lush green hills, past billboards for gun shops and Jesus, the signs warn you of deer crossings, the cities offer sites of intellectual refuge with luxury condos and cold-pressed juice bars. Things are pretty much the same across America, especially in the cities. Most of the people I met in Austin and Nashville don’t even really have accents.
The differences are there but they’re subtle. Waffle Houses instead of Denny’s, Valero instead of Chevron, and of course the rather startling amount of streets and parks named after Confederate generals. The humidity – probably the only thing that genuinely offends me about the South – is intense, but in its own context with blooming flowers and drooping willow trees it seems to somehow make sense.
I’ve spent the past couple days in Atlanta. It’s a beautiful city marred by the fatal flaws of rampant poverty and a sprawling, disorganized traffic system. It’s kind of like the L.A. of the South. I’m actually staying with my aunt and uncle in Covington, about 45 minutes East of the city. When I was researching things to do in town I noticed that Atlanta housed the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.
Well, I figured, why the fuck not? I never set out for this to be the Presidential Library Tour, but after having visited two other such museums on this trip so far I couldn’t help but turn it into a trilogy.
By now I’m familiar with the Presidential Library formula. You walk in, view some kind of introductory video, and proceed through a series of exhibits that are biographical (the President’s baby pictures, early campaign literature, etc.) and contextual (what sort of controversies were consuming the nation at the time they took power) before moving on to a scale model of the Oval Office, some gifts the President had been given by foreign dignitaries, a select few exhibits honoring the major accomplishments of that particular administration.
Of the three Presidential Libraries I’ve visited thus far, this is the one I’d recommend the most. Part of it is the aesthetics; the exhibits are carefully crafted and flow seamlessly from one gallery to another. There’s a room entitled “A Day in the Life of the Presidency” that does a brilliant job of walking one through the intensive itinerary of the President, from 5:30 A.M. until 11:30 at night. The Carter Library also does a great job of offering access to sample documents from the vaults and giving you a sense of what it’s like to actually use it for research.
I also recommend it because I think Jimmy Carter is a severely misunderstood President. His administration is often cited as a failure but in fact he accomplished quite a lot, from protecting 100 million acres of Alaskan wildlife land to creating the Departments of Education and Energy to negotiating a peace deal between Egypt and Israel at Camp David. Moreover, of all of America’s recent leaders he strikes me as the most fundamentally sincere and honest. So honest, in fact, that I think the American people punished him for it.
Take a look at this speech from 1979. The Carter Library didn’t devote much any attention to it but I think they definitely should have. Here you have the President taking a sharp break from standard political talking points to address the spiritual crisis at the heart of American culture. He denounces our crass materialism, our “worship of self-indulgence and consumption” with a brutal honesty I have never seen before or since. He saw our cultural degeneration coming, warned us to seek a greater meaning than what consumer capitalism could provide, and to this day we have not listened.
From the Carter Library it’s only about a one-mile walk to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center. The walk takes you down Atlanta’s Beltline Trail, a gorgeous path that’s made even more pleasurable by the presence of vibrant street art. Most of the art, I understand, comes from Living Walls, a nonprofit dedicated to beatifying the city by painting up various underpasses, sides of buildings, and the like. It’s a brilliant idea that more cities need to adopt. I think they’ve recognized that the only way to fight Bad Graffiti is with Good Graffiti.
The King Center is located in the Historic Fourth ward, which, unlike so many of the “Historic” districts that now seem to exist in every city, actually is worthy of the name. This is where King grew up, and the city has done a respectable job of preserving not only his childhood home but the neighborhood around it.
The actual King Center museum was, to put it charitably, a bit modest. It houses a healthy amount of photographs and memorabilia from King’s life, but with its small size and worn-out brick architecture it feels sadly unworthy of Dr. King’s legacy.
And yet, how much does that matter? Would Dr. King really have wanted an ornate, grandiose monument with classical domes and marble floors? Or would he have wanted us to expend the same energy fighting the injustices that plague our society still? The answer is obvious. One common refrain I heard from visitors mulling through the King museum was the befuddled lamentation that we’re still fighting the same battles nearly 50 years after his death. It’s a cruel yet undeniable fact.
And yet, in many ways the spirit of MLK lives on, not in the hallowed halls of government but in the streets, among the underclass, where it belongs. Walking the streets of Atlanta I came across all kinds of street art (both by Living Walls and anonymous renegades) that offered messages of hope, love and protest.
The cry for justice lives on, the drama of resistance plays out even as the characters and the settings change. The fever-pitched political battles that consume our current national discourse can occasionally feel tiresome, but one must remember that the root of it is love and the desire for more of it. Seeing that idea spray-painted on the side of a train car is far more inspiring than any museum.