When the National Center for Civil and Human Rights opens Monday, it will have something different — living history.
Leaders and foot soldiers from the civil rights, women’s, human rights, student and environmental movements will be available at times to share their stories with visitors.
Participants in the still-evolving Legacy Speakers Bureau may include such well-known names as former Atlanta mayor and civil rights veteran Andrew Young to unsung heroes such as Lillie Kate Benitez, who as a Spelman College student in the 1960s, participated in sit-ins and protests outside of stores where blacks were treated as second-class citizens and Soumaya Khalifa, an intercultural consultant and founders of the Islamic Speakers Bureau.
“You can’t have a powerful museum and a good museum unless your community has a voice in your institution,” said Terrie Rouse, chief operating officer of the NCCHR. “I don’t think anybody else has done it quite like this before. And I think that’s because of the uniqueness of the region. This is a crossroads for thinking and a crossroads for change. There are varied and interesting voices that can come to us and share.”
While the program is still in the works, the idea is to have speakers available to address groups or conferences on request before a visit.
Earlier this year, several prominent individuals were called together to submit the names of people who might be interested in becoming part of the speaker’s bureau. They could nominate others or themselves. There were more than 65 nominations “and I think it’s going to grow,” she said.
Rouse said she hopes to have the program in place by mid-July. The list, though, is fluid and more names are can added as time goes on.
Speaker candidates include people who led the various movements as well as students, journalists, foot soldiers, interfaith leaders, authors and even a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, who has since renounced the hate group.
The chosen speakers will receive a small honorarium.
“If 30 people say yes, it’s fine,” Rouse said. “If five people say yes, it’s fine.”
Undoubtedly, the list will be much longer because Atlanta — as one of the cradles of the civil rights movement — will have leaders and other participants to draw upon.
In addition to legacy speakers, the NCCHRwill also have a cadre of volunteers to enhance at the visitor experience. These volunteers may also have played a role in the movement or have an interest in civil or human rights causes .
Doris Derby, 74, a documentary photographer, former professor and retired director of African American Student Services and Programs at Georgia State University, is among the nominees to be a legacy speaker.
At Hunter College in New York in 1961, Derby was among a black and white students from the campus’ Student Christian Association, the college chapter of the NAACP and other students groups who traveled to the South to learn more about sit-ins, and segregation from the perspective of people who were subjected to it and were starting to push for their civil rights. students from the campus’ Student Christian Association, e NAACP College Chapter and Student Government groups
“It definitely was an eye opener,” said Derby, who comes from a family of activists.
She was teaching in New York in 1962 and had summer plans to take a road trip to Mexico, when she heard about a friend — a protester — who was ill and in jail in Albany, Ga., where racial tensions were rising.
Derby decided to go to Albany with a stop in Atlanta to meet up and travel with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Her plan was to stay a week. She stayed the entire summer, working with voter registration efforts.
Derby returned to New York and began speaking about the movement in her free time and raising money, food and clothing for the people in Albany, many of whom lost their land or jobs because of participation in civil rights movement.
“People had been arrested,” she said. “Local people had their homes bombed, they had been shot and beaten. That was in intensive, rewarding and spiritually-enriching summer. “
Everyone had a role to play, Derby said. There were people who ran safehouses or had the money to bail out protestors. Others were trained to drive cars elude a someone chasing them and others who kept the bellies of protestors full.
The NCCHR will “make sure our kids know the story,” said Benitez, who walked from Spelman College to downtown Atlanta to protest outside of Rich’s department store.
The 72-year-old poet and painter was a inspired to get involved by a recruiter from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “He got all the students together and told us what was expected of us,” she said. “He explained there could be no violence from us. If someone hits you or pushes you, do not retaliate.”
Benitez said that only time she was afraid was when she was part of a group picketing a department store and a group of whites came up and started spitting on them. She hopes to be a part of the Legacy Speakers Bureau and feels visitors can benefit from their experiences.
“We need to explain to them about the people who fought for our freedom — the people you don’t hear about and never see.”
Azira G. Hill, the wife of the late Jesse Hill Jr., an Atlanta businessman and adviser to civil rights leaders and politicians, is also one of those foot soldiers who aren’t likely to show up in a documentary or history book, but she never turned down a request to hold meetings at her home, cook or make sandwiches for people during the movement.
Azira Hill, a native of Cuba was not yet a U.S. citizen. Getting arrested may have put her on a fast track to deportation. Although, she and her husband were told to avoid being arrested "at any time" they were available to help bail protesters out of jail
“It feels wonderful to have someone who is interested in preserving what went on,” said Azira Hill, an early supporter of the NCCHR.”I think it will be a wonderful learning center.”
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