RDBook: A City Too Busy To Hate

Mercer University Press has recently published Sacred Places: A Guide to the Civil Rights Sites in Atlanta, Georgia, by Harry G. Lefever and Michael C. Page, with a foreword by Congressman John Lewis.

Lefever and Page worked on Sacred Places together for more than two years. The book provides a detailed guide to more than 30 Atlanta sites related to the Civil Rights Movement, from the churches where its leaders preached to the sites of student sit-ins to the restaurant where arch-segregationist Lester Maddox made his stand. The book is far more than a tourist manual. It is a compact and compelling demonstration of how the history of the struggle for freedom continues to permeate this urban landscape. I sat down to talk with Lefever and Page about their book and how their project led them to think about place.

RD: This is a book about looking backward into the past, to a difficult moment in history. How well do you think the city of Atlanta does that?

Page: Atlanta used to bill itself as the “City too busy to hate.”

Lefever: Maybe it should be the “City too busy to remember.” We can see this physically, where we tear down building after building here. In terms of Civil Rights history, unfortunately, people know Dr. King—and that’s what they remember. What we tried to do in the book was to make this more than a King movement.

Michael, since you are an Atlanta native I’m curious what you learned about the city that you didn’t know.

Page: Going back and mapping some of the places we wrote about in the book, I was struck by how much the city has changed physically. For this and some other projects that are historical in tone, you will have the experience that you will go to a place—and it’s a place that you have passed by many times, but you have forgotten that something important has happened there. When you are younger, you don’t think about those things. I have a different eye now.

What does the title Sacred Places mean to you?

Lefever: It’s more than religious places. Sacred is a much broader term. Sacred has to do with a dimension of life that is somehow extra-ordinary—out of the ordinary. You have ordinary life: sleeping, studying, grading student papers [laughs]. And then you have a dimension of life that is apart from that, above that, extra from that. It’s often associated with experiences and events, some natural—storms, floods—but it can also be associated with history. It’s also usually associated with sacrifice, some kind of bigger meaning challenging people to ideals or something out of the ordinary—a call to something ideal. Sacred places evoke emotions and actions that show respect, reverence. These places in the book are places where people have shown sacrifice and a great deal of courage, and this title demands that we show them respect and reverence.

Page: What’s interesting is that a lot of these places in the book are not attached to monuments. There are places in the book where if you go and look around, you’ll say, “What’s here?” It’s very different than monument-place, which we usually have some sort of attachment and ritual to. Instead, it’s almost the everyday spaces that we are calling attention to.

Like the college quads of the Atlanta University campuses, where so much happened.

Lefever: But they are different than other college quads, because of the people who were there and the things that they did. They are extraordinary.

Harry, you teach at Spelman—do the students there have that reverence toward their space?

Lefever: No. They recognize the icons of the movement. But the more ordinary people and prosaic places are too foreign to them. For them, this is ancient history.

Does a book like this help to sacralize places that don’t have monuments or plaques?

Lefever: I hope so. But I also hope that sacralizing them doesn’t separate the history so far from everyday life that people think it is totally apart from them. I hope that a book like this can help people to see that the people in the Movement were people like them—students like them, workers like them. I want people to realize that if those people can do it their time, they can do this in their own. I don’t want to put this history on a pedestal.

One audience for this book will be the growing number of tourists who are interested in Civil Rights sites. When a busload of tourists comes to Ebenezer Baptist Church or Sisters Chapel at Spelman, does that change the dynamics of place?

Lefever: There is something commercial about tourism that I don’t like. But, well, so what—American society is like that. If they come with their cameras and do the touristy thing—go home with their pictures to show they have been where Martin Luther King is buried—I am hoping that maybe at some point they will pick this book up and this will still a little interest in the broader context. Maybe this will give them a little more content about how things change, how society changes.

One of the ugliest histories you describe in the book occurred at the Pickrick Restaurant, where Lester Maddox made the segregationist stand that launched his political career. The Pickrick is now owned by Georgia Tech, and there is some question about whether the building might be demolished soon. What do think of that? Should we have reverence toward sites like the Pickrick?

Lefever: I’m not sure the building has to be physically saved, but it shouldn’t just be wiped out and forgotten all together. I am not advocating reverence for Lester Maddox. But we should certainly have reverence for those students who put their lives on the line to oppose him. The darker side of history has a lot to teach us.

Page: I hate to see even places where negative things have happened disappear off the landscape, because then we’ve lost something. Then someone 100 years in the future can’t go back to that place and put time and place and story together. Because of questions and economy and utility, we sometimes make decisions that the best thing is to remove these buildings so we can have something else. But we have a lot of space.

Biographical notes:

Harry Lefever is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Spelman College, where he has taught since 1966. He is also the author of a previous book about the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta: Undaunted by the Fight: Spelman College and the Civil Rights Movement, 1957-1967.

Michael Page, an Atlanta native, holds a master’s degree in geography. He is currently the geospatial librarian at the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University, where he also teaches classes on cartography and geospatial information systems for the Department of Environmental Studies.

Photo: Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia by flickr user jasonrowland. Used under a Creative Commons license.