When Billy Payne stated during a speech in 2006 that the opportunity to build a civil and human rights oriented institution was bigger than the Olympics, more than a few heads turned.
Only recently has an understanding of the opportunity Atlanta and Georgia now possesses come into clear focus. Great places have a theme that binds their collective memory and current action together.
Boston has the Revolutionary War legacy and continues to be a great intellectual city. New Orleans was built through a cultural melting pot and continues to produce innovative music, art and cuisine. Paris has a history of art and culture than continues to produce fashion that leads the world.
Atlanta’s history of civil and human rights trials and triumphs is our formative theme.
From the great debates of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, to the way the community tackled the challenges of desegregation through compromise and inter-community relationships, to the ongoing work of institutions such as CARE, Habitat for Humanity, UNITAR, the King Center and the Carter Center — our history continues to inspire world changing work.
More than just a history lesson, those struggling with the urgent matters of the day yearn for inspiration from our legacy.
The list of issues that might benefit from studying Atlanta’s past include ethnic and religious struggles across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, the debate regarding commercial actors in the promotion and destruction of human rights and the motivations of violent acts shrouded as attempts to solve ideological battles.
As the world globalizes and communications increase, the struggle to build empathy and understanding across the gulf of ignorance and assumption is perhaps the greatest challenge of the century.
This challenge of building understanding already faces Atlanta and Georgia. As our population grows with the influx of new people, businesses, schools and governments will be faced with new obstacles and opportunities in building communities that celebrate diversity while supporting commonality.
The effort to build the Center for Civil and Human Rights (CCHR) is more than the effort to build a place where young people learn about the past.
It will certainly function as place of historical education through exhibiting the Morehouse College King Papers Collection, highlighting issues of human rights today, and telling the stories of unsung individuals who have overcome tremendous odds to make the world better.
The Center will also be a place of constant programming and activity by hosting performances, conferences, speakers, special events and films in order to creatively engage young and old.
The entire effort to claim civil and human rights as our signature legacy provides the way for Atlanta to be relevant on a national and global stage. The opening of the Center for Civil and Human Rights will be a catalyst for presenting a consistent and considerable offering to visitors, scholars and the media across all the institutions our region has to offer.
The Civil Rights Movement goes beyond the story of one people, fighting for a specific set of rights, during a time in the past. The Civil Rights story is a uniquely American contribution to the unending narrative of individuals and communities attempting to find their way to live authentically in the world—no matter who they are.
The opportunity for Atlanta to claim the mantle of leadership regarding rights and freedoms will either be seized by us or pass beyond us.
I believe, even in tough times, the same spirit that led the city to navigate through desegregation without exploding, to build a global transportation infrastructure, to host the Centennial Olympic games will once again move us individually and collectively to successfully build the next great national institution—one that will shape the world- one inspirational story at a time.
Will the Center for Civil and Human Rights effort be bigger than the Olympics?
Only if we seize this opportunity like we have others before.