In 1996 Atlanta was ahead of the game. The eyes of the world were on the Olympics. There was a just-planted jewel of a downtown park. And the Braves had a new home with that new-stadium smell.
Then somehow the Olympic momentum seemed to slip away. Atlanta lost the NASCAR Hall of Fame to Charlotte and mayor Bill Campbell went to jail for tax evasion.
Atlanta needed to get its mojo back, and among the ideas promoted by city leaders was a museum much like the one that will open Monday in the heart of downtown, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
Joseph Lowery, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and his wife Evelyn, a stalwart campaigner for women’s rights, were early supporters. They met with new mayor Shirley Franklin after the 2001 election and offered a short wish list. Among their suggestions was a museum where Atlanta could celebrate its role in the freedom movement.
Good idea, thought Franklin. But she had a few fires to put out. The city was overstaffed and under financed. It faced an $82 million deficit, it was paying millions in federal fines for a woefully inadequate water and sewer system — and fixing those sewers would cost $3 billion.
In 2006, with some of her early challenges resolved, Franklin saw an opportunity and seized it. The King estate had decided to sell a cache of Martin Luther King Jr.’s personal papers. Before the documents could go up for auction at Sotheby’s, Franklin engineered a masterful, high-speed campaign to raise $32 million.
“This was somewhere between difficult and impossible, and 11 days was just about right for her,” marveled former mayor Andrew Young, in a Morehouse College documentary on the papers.
During last-minute negotiations Franklin secured exhibition rights for the material. The proposed civil rights center, a place to show off the King papers, became a logical next step.
“These projects became interwoven in our minds,” Franklin said. “We knew the center would have the capacity to display the papers, and the papers would be a powerful exhibit of what the non-violent principals are.”
With the acquisition of the King papers, the pieces began to fall into place for Atlanta’s new attraction. But Doug Shipman, an Atlantan with the Boston Consulting Group hired to determine whether such a museum would fly, found out, after visiting civil rights museums in Memphis, Cincinnati, Birmingham and Chicago, that history wasn’t enough.
Potential visitors, many of whom weren’t born when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, would want more. Many movement veterans felt the same way: The center needed to connect to contemporary concerns.
The inspiration of the founders was to expand the vision, and show how American protesters planted a seed that flowered around the globe, in the human rights movements in South Africa and Egypt and Venezuela and elsewhere.
“We knew we ought to go ahead and claim the fact that the civil rights movement had a big affect on the rest of the world,” said A.J. Robinson, long-time promoter of downtown and president of Central Atlanta Progress.
Yoking Atlanta history to modern issues would also make the center more relevant to the young people who had never heard the “Dream” speech and were more familiar with Sudan than Selma. Thus the somewhat cumbersome five-part name, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, was born.
The center is composed of three galleries. The gallery titled “Spark of Conviction: The Global Human Rights Movement,” takes up most of the third floor. Jill Savitt, an activist charged with curating that exhibit, says she wanted to put the “human” in human rights.
Visitors are greeted with life-sized images of human rights champions — including lesser-known figures such as Sussan Tahmasebi, a campaigner for women’s rights in Iran, and Bob Kafka, leader of ADAPT, which looks after the rights of people with disabilities.
On one side of the room is a rogues’ gallery of equally life-sized human rights villains, such as Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler and former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, lined up against a wall marked off in inches, as if for mug shots.
The center’s exhibit designers have assumed that its visitors are not historians, but tourists, so they offer a concise but sweeping lesson one floor below, in the “Rolls Down Like Water: The American Civil Rights Movement” gallery, which begins in Jim Crow America and travels through 1968.
Guests walk along a timeline of events, and through a sensory bath of sound and vision. A virtual stroll down Auburn Avenue is accompanied by a cacophonous mix of music that could have been heard on that famous thoroughfare, from gut-bucket blues to opera. Period television sets broadcast newsreels of the day.
Farther on, patrons can sit on a broad bench to watch a panoramic film about the March on Washington. The next room is hushed and darkened, a few lights illuminating stained glass portraits of the four young girls murdered in the Birmingham church bombing.
A staircase, reminiscent of the one at the Lorraine Motel where King was assassinated, carries guests to the third floor, and to the room where the civil and human rights exhibit spaces intermingle.
Curated by Tony Award-winning playwright George C. Wolfe, the civil rights exhibit is a narrative of good versus evil, with a dramatic wind-up.
Wolfe says he wanted to trigger an emotional reaction so that audiences, like those in the theater, become vulnerable to new ideas. To accomplish this goal he’s bred a modern mash-up: an educational thrill ride.
“What theater can create is a kind of visceral potency, and what the traditional museum can craft is intellectual rigor and mental stimulation,” Wolfe said. His gallery combines those ingredients.
Lending intellectual rigor to the experience is “Voice to the Voiceless: The Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection.” It’s a quiet, dim, cloistered gallery on the first floor where the King papers are displayed. The lights are low, the mood tranquil.
There are 13,000 documents in the collection, plus a few more substantial artifacts, such as King’s traveling valise. That suitcase, plus King’s overnight kit, with shaving gear and British Sterling cologne, are part of the current display.
Only a handful of documents can be exhibited in the King gallery at one time, and new papers will be rotated through the nine exhibit cases every three or four months. Morehouse College, King’s alma mater, maintains ownership of the collection, and keeps the bulk of the papers in a vault at the Atlanta University Center’s Woodruff Library.
The museum’s designers have stressed experiential learning over artifacts, but for many observers, the King papers are central to its purpose.
“The collection is the axis around which all of this would turn,” Morehouse president Jonathan Silvanus Wilson said.
The $75 million center, built with private and public money, is in the heart of the evolving tourist corridor, sharing Pemberton Place with the World of Coke and the Georgia Aquarium. The College Football Hall of Fame will open later this summer on nearby Marietta Street.
Getting to this point hasn’t been easy. Fund-raising was stymied by the recession and the architects were forced to downsize, designing a center less than half the size of the one originally planned. There was also the threat of conflict with the estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Andrea Young took a leave of absence from the rights center’s board to avoid attracting hostility, since the King family is suing her father, Andrew Young.
There are challenges ahead, as well. The center’s planners boldly expect 400,000 visitors per year, or twice the number who walk through the Atlanta History Center’s doors.
Shipman, who became the center’s CEO, said ticket sales are crucial to the health of the attraction because in this new era museums can’t rely on public money for operating costs. “The museum industry is contemplating how to be more self-sufficient than it has in past,” he said.
Will Atlanta’s good-time tourists line up for an educational experience?
“We have to redefine what a good time is,” exhibit curator Savitt said. “This is not to going to make you laugh, but part of having a good time is to feel that you can make a contribution with your life.”
In short, the center’s creators hope it will spur visitors to thought, and discussion, and perhaps action.
Its founders see the center as a good fit for Atlanta, a way for the city to create an anchor for a cultural tour that will be connected, by trolley, to the King Center, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and Auburn Avenue.
And the center puts Atlanta back in the eyes of the world, on a global issue — human rights — that is rightfully in the city’s wheelhouse.
“Like the Olympics,” downtown leader Robinson said, “we are back with a relevant institution that puts us out there on a permanent basis on the world stage.”
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