Atlanta Beltline visitors get view of the city’s civil rights history

Karcheik Sims-Alvarado is combining her love of art and history with a new 4-mile-long “open museum” along the Atlanta Beltline.

The Atlanta-based author and historian has curated an exhibit of 60 black-and-white images that will be on display along the Eastside and Westside trails of the Beltline through Dec. 1.

The exhibit is based on Sims-Alvarado’s 2017 book, “Images of America: Atlanta and the Civil Rights Movement, 1944-1968.”

By having the exhibit in such a public space, “you’re democratizing knowledge,” she said. “You’re democratizing the arts. You’re making the learning of history and arts accessible to all. People can walk out of their backyards or walk from school and have access to a museum.”

It features well-known civil rights leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois and Coretta Scott King, but also lesser-known people such as Georgia native Roslyn Pope, who was part of the Atlanta Student Movement and penned the 1960 “An Appeal for Human Rights.”

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Karcheik Sims-Alvarado (left) and author Roslyn Pope pose for a portrait near a photo installation on the Atlanta Beltline near Gordon White Park. Sims-Alvarado is presenting a 4-mile-long exhibit of images from her book, “Images of America: Atlanta and the Civil Rights Movement, 1944-1968,” on the Atlanta Beltline. A photo of Pope’s appeal for human rights, which she drafted and presented in March 1960 during the height of the civil rights movement, is featured in the outside exhibit. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

So far, there are 60 images, but Sims-Alvarado hopes to expand that number, perhaps on the Beltline or at other sites throughout Atlanta.

“I hope that when people look at this exhibit, they are moved by it,” said Sims-Alvarado, CEO of Preserve Black Atlanta and former director of the John Lewis Fellowship at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. She wants them to learn about the organizational structure of the movement and its unsung heroes “who sacrificed their lives in the quest for freedom. In the photos, I hope young people can see themselves.”

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Art on the Atlanta Beltline began in 2010, with exhibitions of more than 40 works of visual and performance art, according to its website. The idea was to encourage people to explore the Atlanta Beltline and enjoy art; in the process, “before they know it, they’re in a different neighborhood,” said Junior Knox, a spokesperson for Atlanta Beltline.

Images from Karcheik Sims-Alvarado’s book, “Images of America: Atlanta and the Civil Rights Movement, 1944-1968,” are displayed along the Atlanta Beltline near Gordon White Park. Sixty images will be paired with descriptions to inform pedestrians as they walk along the Atlanta Beltline. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Currently, the Atlanta Beltline has 11 paved miles. There were 1.87 million visitors on the Eastside Trail in 2017. The Westside Trail had about 34,000 visitors, but it was under construction until September 2017.

It was important to Sims-Alvarado that the civil rights exhibit be on the Westside, which is home to the Atlanta University Center and many African-American businesses.

Sims-Alvarado’s love of history and art goes back to her childhood in Atmore, Ala.

Her mother, Mildred English Sims, who was African-American, was a stay-at-home mom and artist. Her father, Aaron Myrick, who was white, was a salesman. The two, who lived separately, went against society’s mores and, in some cases, laws forbidding interracial marriage and relationships.

“Through their love, they also stood up for civil rights,” she said. She dedicated her book to her parents and says it’s the only place their names appear next to each other in print.

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Karcheik Sims-Alvarado, an historian and author, curated the Atlanta BeltLine photography exhibition “Atlanta and the Civil Rights Movement, 1944-1968.” CONTRIBUTED (For the AJC)

Atlanta played a critical role in the struggle for civil and human rights in this country — from students at the city’s HBCUs, to bankers, attorneys and “people who made the sandwiches.”

One of those figures was Pope.

At the time, Pope was a student at Spelman College. She had just spent a year in Paris studying music as a Merrill Scholar.

“I didn’t want to come back,” said Pope, a retired college professor who is part of the exhibit. “Being in Paris just made me realize that I was a human being. I didn’t have to go though back doors. I didn’t have to sit in the back of the bus. It freed me.”

From now through through Dec. 1, a walk along the Atlanta Beltline can also provide an opportunity for a civil rights history lesson. In this photo is Grace Towns Hamilton, the first African American woman elected to the Georgia Legislature. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

When she returned, though, she was faced with the same obstacles as when she left. “I came back into a segregated society,” she said.

She worked with other student activists, including Lonnie King, Julian Bond and Marian Wright (now Edelman).

“An Appeal for Human Rights” was published in the local newspapers, including what is now The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“The purpose of the manifesto was to give notice to the people of Atlanta that we would no longer be subjected to a segregated society and be considered less than full human beings,” Pope said. “We alerted them that we were going to take direct action.”

She believes that it’s a part of history that should be studied today and the exhibit will help raise awareness.

“Many years later, it’s still very relevant,” she said. “When you look at where we are now, some of the things in the appeal still actually apply for many people.”

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