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Where Freedom Rings

It’s been said you have to know the past to understand the present. Atlantic City’s Civil Rights Garden, which recalls the struggle of African Americans  to win their freedom, is an important destination for everyone who wants to learn about this chapter in American history, and why it still matters so much today.

It’s a tranquil place that recalls a turbulent time.
Atlantic City’s Civil Rights Garden is both a moving retrospective of the age-old struggle for freedom, and a reminder that Atlantic City is more than a footnote in that history.

Set almost in the literal heart of the community at the Carnegie Center, Pacific Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard, the Civil Rights Garden uses words, images and art to illustrate the long battle of African Americans for civil rights in the United States. While charting the fight from the post-Civil War era to the activism of the 1960s, the Garden emphasizes a single, fundamental right: the right to vote.

In 1866, with the 15th amendment to the Constitution, former slaves ostensibly won the right to vote (though those rights were reserved for men only). But those rights were not truly protected for almost a century. During the Jim Crow era, opponents of civil rights placed deliberate obstacles in the paths of African-American who wanted to vote, such as literacy tests and poll taxes. Unfortunately, those obstacles were all too effective in discouraging black men and women from casting ballots. It wasn’t until August 6, 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, that the tide at last began to turn.

Words to Live By
The Civil Rights Garden, a green and contemplative place planted with leafy gingko trees and seasonal shrubs and flowers, vividly depicts the path to freedom. Built in 2001, it features 11 granite columns emblazoned with the words of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King; freedom fighters including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass; and Fannie Lou Hamer, whose plea for inclusion in an all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention (held right here in Atlantic City) was a clarion call for equality.

Movingly, the columns also cite lesser-known but equally eloquent pleas for justice from former slaves like Austin Seward, whose personal experience of bondage are carved on one of the columns:

“So degrading is the whole practice of Slavery that it not only crushes and brutalizes the wretched slave, but it hardens the heart, benumbs all the fine feelings of humanity, and deteriorates … the character of the slave-holders themselves ? whether man or woman.”

Working with historian Dr. Clement Price, artist and sculptor Larry Kirkland represented the journey from slavery to freedom with a “long, winding pathway, threading through ever-taller granite columns, just like the steady walk of those seeking justice. The brick was used as I wanted you to feel the texture under your feet.”

A Walk to Remember
The centerpiece of the Garden is an upraised hand, the “symbol of ‘I am,’” says Kirkland. The mighty raised, cast in bronze, hand also symbolizes “raising your hand to be counted in any vote of this ever-changing democracy.” A 7-foot bronze bell overlooks a fountain and reflecting pool with quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.’s stirring “Let Freedom Ring” speech, and famous letters written in 1963 from a Birmingham, Alabama jail.

“The Civil Rights Garden is a jewel of the city,” says Richlyn Goddard, history professor at Richard Stockton College and a member of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Commission. It’s fitting, Goddard says, that the memorial is located here, as Atlantic City was built in large part on the labor of blacks who migrated from the South to build better lives for their children and grandchildren.

Their motto, she says, was “Three months to hurry, nine months to worry,” which wryly captures the seasonal nature of working in a resort community.

“Whether they came here from the South or lived here all their lives, that’s the way they described life in Atlantic City,” says Goddard. “During the summer you’d work double shifts and work a second job to survive in the off-season. That’s when community was formed.”

It took “a special kind of determination” to build this city, Goddard says. “These people were resilient; they were pioneers.” It’s vital, she adds, for young people today to learn about their forebears ? to acknowledge the blood, sweat and toil invested in the past for their futures. “The generations need to see they have a vested interest” in their community, says Goddard.

As Mayor Don Guardian noted on the 50th anniversary of the 1964 convention, “This is a city that was built on the back of freed slaves — their sons, their children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren.”

Nancy Axelrod, also a member of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, was thrilled by her first visit to the Garden. “It was awe-inspiring to be surrounded by quotes of the heroes of the civil rights movement, and it made me think: Whose voices will be inspiring us to rise above hate, greed and fear in the future? 

“It is my hope that a trip to the Atlantic City Civil Rights Garden is a required field trip for all New Jersey school children,” Axelrod says, “so that they will be similarly inspired, and ask that question of themselves.”
The Civil Rights Garden is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 609-347-0500.


In Memoriam
Here are two other noteworthy nods to our history, which can be found on the Atlantic City Boardwalk:

New Jersey Korean War Memorial
This stirring sculptural work offers a moving tribute to 822 New Jerseyans who died in the so-called “forgotten war,” an undeclared conflict waged in Korea from 1950 to 1953. Dedicated in 2000, the Korean War Memorial includes a towering 12-foot bronze statue of “The Mourning Soldier,” helmet in hand, clutching a fistful of dog tags and flanked by a wall of soldiers under fire.

Engraved on a wall behind the memorial are the names of those who perished. Find it at Brighton Park at Park Place and the Boardwalk, near Kennedy Plaza. 

Atlantic City Workers Memorial
Also at Kennedy Plaza, this tribute includes an 8-foot statue of a construction worker overlooking a plaque bearing the names of who have died on construction jobs since the mid-1970s, at the dawn of the casino boom. 

Originally, the Workers Memorial was a simple plaque at the base of the Atlantic City Expressway. It was expanded and moved to Kennedy Plaza in 2004, a year after four ironworkers died in the collapse of an Atlantic City parking garage. The statue, dubbed For His Fallen Brothers and Sisters, was created by Thomas Jay Warren, who also designed and sculpted parts of the Korean War Memorial.
The plaque bears this inscription: “Dedicated to the men and women of organized labor who lost their lives while working on the redevelopment of Atlantic City,” followed by their names. See the memorial on the Boardwalk at Florida Avenue, near Kennedy Plaza.

Korean War Memorial
The plaque bears this inscription: “Dedicated to the men and women of organized labor who lost their lives while working on the redevelopment of Atlantic City,” followed by their names. See the memorial on the Boardwalk at Florida Avenue, near Kennedy Plaza.