the outside of a full-size replica of a Freedom
Rider bus is a police mug shot of Congressman John
Lewis, D-Ga., who was arrested many times during
protests of the 1960s. The Freedom Rider exhibit is
part of the civil rights gallery at the National
Center for Civil and Human Rights, which opens
Monday, June 23
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
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.
needed to get its mojo back, and among the ideas promoted
by city leaders was the National Center for Civil and
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
by Tony Award-winning playwright George C. Wolfe, the
civil rights exhibit is a narrative of good versus evil,
with a dramatic wind-up.
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.
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
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.
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
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
museum’s designers have stressed experiential learning
over artifacts, but for many observers, the King papers
are central to its purpose.
$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.
Atlanta’s good-time tourists line up for an educational
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."
short, the center’s creators hope it will spur visitors
to thought, and discussion, and perhaps action.
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
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.
National Center for Civil and Human Rights will be open 10
a.m.-5 p.m. seven days a week. Tickets: $15;
senior/student/educator, $13; ages 3-12, $10; 2 and under,
free; military (active and retired), free; military
family: adult, $7.50; senior, $6.50; youth, $5. 100 Ivan
Allen Jr. Blvd. Information: 678-999-8990,