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Bearing witness

Red Was the Midnight at the MLK Jr. National Historic Site

It is impossible to dispute the intentions of Red Was the Midnight: The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot. The exhibit at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site forces a city hell-bent on progress to do a little navel-gazing in the interest of racial healing. But the exhibition itself, which documents the four days of organized carnage 100 years ago when white mobs attacked and killed a still-undetermined number of black citizens, can feel frustratingly thin.

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With such a wall-text-dominated effort to make the past come alive, it is possible the evocative, testimonial power of essays, symposia and novels might do a better job than a museum exhibit in the case of an event like the 1906 Race Riot.

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The curators have made an admirable effort to dwell not just on the race riot itself; instead, they work to convey to viewers the social history of the city, including the prominence of a black middle class that threatened the white power base. As in a horror film, that status quo is established to better convey the horror when monstrous racism asserts itself.

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But it is hard to deny that one of the most powerful — and firsthand — documents included in the exhibition cuts to the heart of the violence the riot unleashed. In the audio recording, Evelyn Witherspoon recounts how, at age 10, she witnessed a lynching on the first day of the riot. And her testimony conveys far more than all of the tangential documents and collaged newspaper headlines heralding the violence.

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The exhibition Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America also at the MLK Historical Site, would not have been as powerful without the tangible photographic records that rendered the human degradation and astounding violence of lynching. But the material history on the race riots is more scant. As a result, the sensation viewers may be left with is that the exhibition is both necessary, and insufficient, in conveying the horror of latent racism taken to its morbid extreme.



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