ATLANTA – A fact often overlooked today is that the civil rights movement was within living memory.
Atlanta is a city known for its civil rights history. As the home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and one of the epicenters of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Atlanta dealt with much of the causes and results of the demonstrations.
It is with all this in mind that the city is now home to the Center for Civil and Human Rights, which opens June 23. In a light brown modern structure, the museum sits squarely in the heart of Centennial Olympic Park, between the World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium.
When visitors enter the center, they are greeted by a mural of protest posters from around the world, highlighting that the fight for basic human rights is a global issue and continues to this day.
The center holds two large exhibits – a track dedicated to King and the civil rights movements of the 1960s, and a track on human rights, international crimes and commercial enslavement.
The center houses a collection of items from the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection, featuring artifacts from his personal libraries. A wall is dedicated to a scrolling digital marquee saying, “I have a dream” in dozens of languages.
The origins of that dream began in the 1940s and ‘50s, when segregation in America was deeply entrenched.
“We were doing the same things, just not doing them together,” said Beth Haynes, development manager for the center.
American society was divided between white and “colored.” Yet everyone loved dancing, attended school, movies, played sports and rode buses. The similarities were obvious, but – especially on buses – the differences could be stark. Separate did not mean equal.
A wall nearby displays Jim Crow laws by state. In Georgia, it was illegal to marry between races and school textbooks had to be kept separate, divided by race.
From these beginnings, the exhibit turns gloomy, heading into the heart of the civil rights era, the speeches, the hope and the divisiveness.
In November 1964, Atlanta wanted to host a celebratory dinner for King after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Unfortunately, many of the white business owners and movers and shakers in the city did not want to take part.
Under pressure from the Atlanta mayor and the president of Coca-Cola, more than 1,500 people showed up to the dinner.
This passive-aggressive stance from whites is contrasted with outright violence, found in footage from the Birmingham riots, which is itself contrasted with the peaceful and exciting Million Man March in Washington, D.C.
All this culminates in the desegregation of America. As President Lyndon Baines Johnson said, “There is no negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem.”
The civil rights component of the museum ends with the assassination of MLK.
But the lessons from the American civil rights era translate well into the wider world and the push for human rights.
This aspect of the museum focuses on “fair trade” and the unintended effects of industrialization and commercialism.
For instance, it details how countries around the world are free or not free, or how many common consumer goods can be linked to slavery or trafficking.
Chocolate, for instance, is a large employer of very young African boys; about 75 percent of cocoa beans come from West African plantations, where these boys are made to work.
The displays force the viewer to think about their actions and purchases.
The Center for Civil and Human Rights was first imagined by civil rights legends Evelyn Lowery and former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young and was launched by former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. The effort gained broad-based corporate and community support to become one of the few places in the world educating visitors on the bridge between the American civil rights movement and contemporary human rights movements around the world.
Established in 2007, the center’s 43,000-square-foot facility is located on Pemberton Place, adjacent to the World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium, on land donated by the Coca-Cola Company. It opens to the public June 23.
The Center for Civil and Human Rights is located at 100 Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard, Atlanta, and can be found online at www.civilandhumanrights.org.