Multi-million dollar expansion efforts at Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights got a boost this week from Washington.
U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff is announcing a $1.4 million appropriations grant for the center that would help build a new gallery focusing on atrocities during the Reconstruction Era, and to expand and relocate the popular Martin Luther King Jr. exhibit space.
“I’m helping upgrade exhibits at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights because this Georgia institution tells the story and keeps the flame lit of civil rights heroes like Dr. King and Congressman John Lewis,” Ossoff said in a statement. “I hope more Georgia children will now have the opportunity to learn this vital history and be inspired by the examples of champions for civil and voting rights who made such sacrifices in the pursuit of equal justice for all.”
The $75 million, 42,000-square-foot center, built with private and public money, opened in 2014 with the goal of inspiring people “to tap their own power to change the world around them.”
In 2024, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights plans to mark its 10th anniversary with a major expansion. Last October, the center announced that one of its original supporters, philanthropist and business mogul Arthur M. Blank, had committed $15 million toward the center’s $48 million capital campaign that will add two wings to the downtown museum. The new three-story west wing will be named for Blank.
Jill Savitt, the center’s CEO, said she expects to break ground on new construction by November.
One of the most important exhibits, and the most popular, has been the Voice to the Voiceless Gallery, which houses a rotating selection of papers and artifacts from the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection.
The collection, more than 10,000 papers and books spanning from 1944 to 1968, was acquired in 2006 for $32 million with the help of former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who didn’t want them split up at auction. The collection was donated to Morehouse after the purchase.
As part of the expansion and renovations, and partly with the new grant money, the King exhibit will move to a bigger space on the center’s first floor near the entrance.
“That exhibit doesn’t get the traffic it deserves,” said Savitt, about the King exhibit, which is now located on the lowest level of the museum. “Moving it to the lobby, where everybody comes makes it a non-negotiable part of your visit.”
Museum visitors will be able to sit at one of King’s old desks and look through his library. There will also be a small reading area for young visitors and children.
“Support for exhibitions will help to preserve the rich legacy of the movement and to bring to light lesser-known stories of leaders and everyday people who risked their lives for social change,” said Vicki Crawford, director of Morehouse collection and a professor of Africana Studies. “Given the context of our times and current challenges to democracy, civil rights education is needed now more than ever.”
The grant will also create a new exhibit called “Bearing Witness,” which will focus on racial violence throughout history and the resilience of the people who were targeted. Savitt said that new gallery should serve as a crucial counter to “what is not likely, or well taught, in schools.”
“Especially in this climate,” she said. “Our new galleries — focused on Dr. King and the Reconstruction Era — enhance our teaching of history, and its connection to the world today. Our goal is to help people tap their own power to make sure the rights and dignity of all people are protected.”