Atlanta is a big, bleak city and it was dull and cold when we were there. The busy downtown, which had plenty of tourists, carried just a threat of danger. We were not impressed by the fried chicken at Pittypat’s Porch which we had booked in honour of the frumpy character in ‘Gone with the Wind’ (though we did like the pickled watermelon rind). The subway system which took us to the Martin Luther King birthplace, to Ebenezer Church and to the High Museum of Art was full of poor people seeking heat, many obese and asleep.
But I’m glad we went to Atlanta, if only because on the first day, when the weather was drier and warmer, we went to the National Centre for Civil and Human Rights which is at the side of the Olympic Park and next door to the far bigger crowd pleaser which is the World of Coca Cola: that was crammed with tourists and locals alike, and offered 120 different kinds of Coke. The Centre (Center) itself is an impressive place and includes an actual lunch counter where you sit and passively resist, hands flat on the table, while wearing headphones with Southern voices shouting ugly things at you.
The most impressive thing, though, wasn’t the museum, it was the vast crowd of marchers taking part in the ‘March for Our Lives’ in the wake of the Florida school shootings. According to the papers there were 30,000 marchers but it felt like hugely more, as tributaries from buses and trams flowed into a river of people. We had a good vantage point and stood and watched, admiring the inventiveness of the homemade banners and vehemence of the slogans. It was clear that many people were there in school groups, class trips from all over Georgia and the city itself, mingling with families and individuals, lots of old people in particular, preponderantly white.
Mr F and I stood at the side of the road for a while, then accidentally became marchers for five minutes as we attempted to cross the wide road to get to the streetcar. I wanted to tell people I was a high school Principal – well, till recently – in some kind of act of solidarity. I felt both with the marchers and wholly separated from them, because I have no idea what it must be like to look into the abyss of the possibility that someone could come into your school and murder your students. How do you exist after that, knowing that it happens because some of your politicians are in thrall to the NRA?
In the United States last year, there were more school shootings than school days, something repeated on lots of these banners. Many of the marchers were visibly angry; lots of them were hard-bitten old demonstrators who had been here before. And yet, across the whole demonstration there was good humour, lots of people laughing together, or stopping for a quick snack on the grass. It was as if they were saying ‘Well, most probably this will change nothing so we might as well have a nice day together.’ It left me stirred and sad and just proud to have accidentally been there.