Georgia On My Grind: Part II

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Staying at the home of my aunt and uncle — a 200-year-old antebellum edifice rendered even more mysterious with their sardonic Southern Gothic decor — has refreshed my soul while still kindling the ghostly flame.

As I was researching things to do in the city of Atlanta I noticed that World of Coca Cola – a museum dedicated to America’s favorite diabetes risk factor – was located right next to the Center for Civil and Human Rights.

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Civil Rights Museum on the Left, Coke Museum on the Right (not a political statement, just a happy accident).

Marveling at the juxtaposition, I recognized the potential for a wonderfully ironic adventure. Here is the duality of America in one convenient package; the hollow dream of consumerism and the sincere dream of struggle. And they both charge the same admission: $18.

I decided I’d try World of Coca-Cola first.

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I forgot to write down the details, but this is some kind of Argentinian delivery truck from decades ago.

It was rather unbelievable to me that one could dedicate an entire museum to a fizzy sugar drink, and still more unbelievable that I, a grown-ass man, would pay to visit it.  But I was far from the only one. The place was packed with families from all over the world. There was some kind of touring student group from South Korea. This is a well-staffed, well-thought out tourist destination that takes itself seriously.

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Some examples of Coke ads from around the world. 

As I’ve touched upon briefly in my remarks on Starbucks, I genuinely respect good marketing even if I don’t care much for the product. And Coca-Cola are the Beatles of marketing. Not only are they the best, they’ve taken it to a level no one ever thought possible. They have outdone Christianity and Communism in their ambition to plant their flag in every corner of the globe. Together with McDonald’s it’s become shorthand for the dominance of American consumer capitalism.

Upon entering the museum they have you sit through a six-minute introductory film. I some kind of historical documentary on the product but it was nothing of the sort. It was basically an extended Super Bowl commercial comprised of multifarious sappy slices of life – a couple announcing their pregnancy, a grandmother celebrating a birthday, a kid getting his first kiss at Christmas – all somehow, impossibly, connected to Coca-Cola. It was well-produced propaganda – people actually clapped at the end – but the premise was so absurd that I was left with my jaw agape. The balls on these people, I kept thinking to myself.

And yet they do that continually, shamelessly, at nearly every exhibit; a meticulous, melodramatic pitch that this drink can claim some portion of the upper reaches of human emotion. The fact that they’ve pulled this off successfully, continuously, for more than a century in this supposed Age of Reason will one day command the attention of future anthropologists.

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Did you know that Coca-Cola basically created our modern conception of Santa Claus? This painting and others like it was created in the 30s by Haddon Sundblom for a Coke Christmas campaign. It’s worth quoting the museum information verbatim: “Sundblom drew inspiration from ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas,’ the 1922 poem by Clement Clarke Moore, who described Santa as ‘a right jolly old elf.’ Unlike earlier versions of a stern and sometimes scary figure, Sundblom’s Santa projected a warm and friendly personality that helped shape the image of Santa that lives on in the minds of children – and adults – all over the world.”

There are a lot of genuinely fascinating artifacts at World of Coca-Cola. It’s amusing to see the early advertisements, the initial marketing of their product as a “brain tonic,” the ads designed for foreign markets, the mini-memoriam to “New Coke” – their failed 1980s attempt at changing the formula – and, most curious to me, a wall of “Coca-Cola Stories,” where visitors write down their “memories” associated with the product and post them on a wall.

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I don’t know if the makers of Jagermeister have a museum, but I really, really would like to see a similar wall dedicated to the stories that drink has engendered. Hell, I’d be able to post a few myself. 

But the museum’s pièce de résistance is undoubtedly the Tasting Room, where you can sample more than 100 Coca-Cola products from around the world. Stuff you’d never even imagined; a watermelon-flavored drink available in China, a vaguely coconut-tasting beverage from Italy. Amazing stuff. I wanted to sample them all but thankfully a small part of my rational mind begged me to stop. I’ve done enough damage to my teeth on this trip as it is.

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After drinking my fill of the surreal World of Coca-Cola, it was time to enter the very real world of the Civil and Human Rights Museum. And I have to say, I’m glad I took the time to visit. Of all the many places I’ve visited on this Tour, there are only a couple that I would say Everyone Must Visit. The first is the Grand Canyon, simply by virtue of its incomparable beauty. The second is this. Whereas the King Center seemed too modest and underfunded to do justice to the legacy of the movement, the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights is exactly the sort of monument the Movement, and our nation, needs. I fancy myself an American History buff and I still learned a ton of information of which I’d had no inkling before.

For instance, have you ever heard of Claudette Colvin? She was a teenager who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery bus, months before Rosa Parks did the same thing. However, the movement chose not to publicize her struggle because she was deemed too controversial. She had a baby out of wedlock, and was described as too “feisty” and “emotional” to gain the sympathy of a white audience. So they threw their weight behind Rosa Parks, who was older, calmer, and more dignified, (as well as lighter-skinned).

The museum exhaustively explores every aspect of the struggle, from absurd examples of Jim Crow laws (in Georgia a white amateur baseball team could not legally play within two blocks of a black team) to nation’s black trailblazers (from well-known figures like Jackie Robinson down to the first black Supreme Court page) to the dozens of black businesses, churches and newspapers that played a significant role in the movement.

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People in Washington were so scared of the March and the violence it would supposedly bring that liquor stores were closed and professional baseball games cancelled. Of course nothing happened except hours of inspiring speeches, songs and prayers, some of which you can watch in the exhibit’s theater.

Particularly moving was the March on Washington exhibit. We typically associate this moment with MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech but as the exhibit proves it was so, so much more than that. Here again I learned of an underappreciated hero; Bayard Rustin. This was the guy who handled most of the logistics of organizing the march – not a small task when you’re talking about 250,000 people, but because he was openly gay, a conscientious objector in WWII, and formerly associated with some Communist groups, he didn’t get the credit he deserved. Here, again, the museum does a terrific job of paying tribute to such unsung heroes.

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Once again, I run into my old friend Bob Dylan in the March on Washington exhibit.

The Civil Rights museum features many mini-theaters that play original documentary footage (of March on Washington speeches, the Freedom Riders, MLK’s assassination, etc.). Most of these theaters have boxes of Kleenex ready nearby. It simply is that powerful. I could go on writing about it for hours but this post is already getting too long. I’ll simply conclude by saying that this is something every American should see. If you have any kind of soul it will make you a more thoughtful person, at least for a while.

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Hand-written ledger detailing the costs of MLK’s funeral.

 

3 thoughts on “Georgia On My Grind: Part II

  1. Judy

    Your comments on the Coke museum made me laugh and appreciate good marketing and American gullibility.
    Reading about the Civil and Human Rights Museum gave me a glimpse into how little I know about the Black struggle and also made me angry as marketing and “make the most sensational news” found its way into something so serious.
    We are fed so much bias.

    Like

  2. I wondered who finished off the rest of the arsenic. Really enjoying your posts, Nick. Thanks for making us part of your journey. Safe travels, kiddo. Would it be okay if I shared your blog on Facebook and a few of your posts on my blog?

    Like

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