By Maria Saporta
As she formally opened the new Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta, former Mayor Shirley Franklin called it “just a step” along the city’s way towards justice and freedom.
“We believe we are just starting,” Franklin told the crowd of hundreds of dignitaries and well-wishers who braved the stifling heat to be part of the historic opening. “Some people see this as an end. We the people who love freedom, as did Nelson Mandela, understand that this is just a step along the way.”
The step, however, was shared by a host of civil rights legends and supporters of Atlanta’s newest destination. U.S. Rep. John Lewis thanked Franklin and the other people involved in the Center “for never giving up, for never giving in.”
Calling Atlanta an “unbelievable city,” Lewis said it was a place that attracted the greatest minds and leaders during the 1960s – people who continue to carry the message today of wanting “to speak truth to power.”
“We are very blessed to call this city our home,” Lewis said.
U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson also marveled at the new Center and what it represented for Atlanta and the whole state of Georgia.
Perhaps the most poignant moments were the personal exchanges between Franklin, who chairs the Center’s board and who has championed its development; and current Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. The two mayors used to have a very close relationship, but they became estranged after Reed was first elected mayor.
But that was not apparent on Monday morning.
During his comments to the audience, Reed opened up by saying: “We did it Atlanta. Give yourselves a big round of applause.”
But then he gave credit where credit was due.
“I want to begin by thanking Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin for having the will and the desire” to build the Center, “ said Reed, who then called on the audience to give her a special thank you.
After his brief remarks, Reed was told his comments about Franklin were quite gracious.
“It was appropriate,” he said. “There would have been no King papers; there would have been no museum without Shirley. It was totally appropriate.”
Franklin then took the stage and was warmly received by the crowd.
“When I was born, I couldn’t be mayor of Atlanta,” she said, providing some historical context to the moment. “It wasn’t possible. The laws wouldn’t allow it. I understand deep down in my soul the need to make sure everyone understand that every one has rights.”
That brought her to telling the story of how Evelyn Lowery, the now-deceased wife of Rev. Joseph Lowery, urged her to build a Center for Civil Rights shortly after Franklin had been elected mayor.
Mrs. Lowery understood that Atlanta needed a Center where people could “learn and understand and be inspired,” and that “Atlanta can be a place for this dialogue and debate.”
Franklin then said: “In her honor, I dedicate this day to Evelyn Lowery.”