Atlanta Brings Civil Rights Struggle to Life with New Center

atlanta civil rights center
atlanta civil rights center

The goal of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights is to inspire people to make changes for the greater good. (Photo: Blane Bachelor)

By Blane Bachelor

Authentic footage depicting civil rights protests, hard-hitting, interactive exhibits, and selections from the $22 million collection of personal papers from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are among the many highlights of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta, which officially opened to the public June 23.

The $80 million center spans an impressive 43,000 square feet over three levels, but it offers a surprisingly intimate experience.

A multi-year collaboration of civil rights leaders, historians, and renowned photographers, artists, and other creative types, it takes visitors on an emotional yet uplifting journey through the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., starting with the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, and transitioning into modern-day human rights struggles.

atlanta civil rights center
atlanta civil rights center

The center’s exterior. (Photo: Ashley O’Dell/Atlanta Convention & Visitors)

The goal, founders and organizers say, is not to overwhelm visitors with history, but rather inspire them to make change for the greater good in their own lives.

“Only 25% of Americans alive today heard the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” center CEO Doug Shipman told during a tour at the center. “We want people to come with their own stories and identities and perspectives, and find themselves here, find people who look like them, find people who they identify with, and then piece together what is meaningful for them to go forward and work on the issues that they care about.”

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King’s influence forms a compelling theme throughout, but the center also focuses on sharing the stories of lesser-known heroes of the civil rights movement.

“These are people who led these very complicated and full lives, who managed to include in their lives a sense of responsibility for other people,” the center’s chief creative officer and Tony Award-winning playwright George C. Wolfe said by phone. “We’re trying to squeeze in as many of those individuals in there as we possibly can.”

atlanta civil rights center
atlanta civil rights center

The gallery features human rights icons such as Nelson Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Mahatma Gandhi. (Photo: Ashley O’Dell/Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau)

Such stories, as well as the movement’s larger themes, come to life via thoughtful use of design elements incorporating light, darkness, sound, and silence to convey the struggles and triumphs of human rights issues over the decades. Exhibits don’t shy away from the violence that often ensued in the U.S. Civil Rights movement following the peaceful protests that King and his supporters encouraged.

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One particularly emotional exhibit allows visitors to experience what it was like for black students during the student sit-ins at lunch counters of drugstores like Woolworth’s, in which they demanded to be served food alongside whites. Visitors put on a pair of headphones and hear the escalating threats and taunts that protesters heard.

In the space that depicts King’s 1968 assassination, visitors climb a set of stairs designed to look like the balcony of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel, where the civil rights leader was shot. Large black-and-white photos document the tragedy; one of the most dramatic shows the brother of the motel’s owner cleaning up King’s blood.

atlanta civil rights center
atlanta civil rights center

The center was a multi-year collaboration of civil rights leaders, historians, and renowned photographers, artists, and other creative types. (Photo: Ashley O’Dell/Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau)

That area leads to a darkened room whose centerpiece is footage from King’s funeral, accompanied by audio from one of his speeches. A single church pew is positioned directly in front of the screen showing his casket being carried and sobbing mourners. Said Shipman: “(Tuesday) night, Dr. King’s sister-in-law, sister, and daughter were here, and they sat there and watched it three times.”

Another standout exhibit is a depiction of a Freedom Rider bus covered in back-to-back mug shots of the activists who were jailed. But, as the photos illustrate, many of the activists were not just African American.

“We wanted you to get that there were a lot of young people, there were a lot of white people, there were a lot of women (involved), and you can immediately see that,” Shipman said.

One of the most inspiring exhibits showcases the 1963 March on Washington. The space is designed to mimic the Lincoln Memorial, where the march culminated, with images and video clips showing participants preparing for the event and marching, along with civil rights leaders speaking.

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The exterior of the building, which is expected to earn the environment-friendly LEED Gold status, isn’t without meaning, either. Its soaring, arced sides resemble a pair of cupped hands, and a grass-covered rooftop, which will recycle water, is evocative of the green spaces, parks, and squares where most activism takes place. “So from above it’s almost creating a place in which civil and human rights can happen,” Shipman said.

That sense of empowerment is a main theme for the human rights gallery. The most contemporary area of the center, it allows visitors to connect with particular human rights struggles through interactive mirrors. Activists are shown in nearly life-size images representing women’s rights in Iran; immigrant and disability rights and disability rights in the U.S.; and LGBT rights in Russia, among others.

The gallery also celebrates human rights icons such as Nelson Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Mahatma Gandhi, and calls out the worst-of-the-worst: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Pol Pot.

The lowest level of the center houses a carefully curated group of King’s personal papers and artifacts, which rotate every four months to minimize exposure to light while coinciding with significant dates in Civil Rights history. The current selection includes speeches handwritten in his gently lilting cursive, the briefcase he was carrying during his assassination, and toiletries such as a can of shaving powder and his razor.

On the wall, etched in Southern pine, are some of King’s most famous quotes, and an area where “I have a dream” is translated into 25 languages and projected.

Unlike the rest of the center, there’s none of the sometimes-overwhelming audio of the rest of the galleries: just a quiet, smallish space where visitors can let King’s essence really sink in.

It’s a fitting spot to end a visit: a thoughtful sanctuary honoring the man who did so much to start it all.

If you go: The center is open every day Monday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors and students, and $10 for children aged 3-12.

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