Center for Civil and Human Rights dawning of a new day for Atlanta

By Maria Saporta

“Atlanta, it’s time to wake up.”

So began my column in the July 19, 2004 edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

I serendipitously ran across that column – “Civil Rights museum a natural for Atlanta” – a few months ago. Upon reading the column nearly a decade later, I was pleasantly amazed at the challenge I had thrown out to Atlanta and how the Atlanta community ultimately responded to that challenge.

So here we are as the Atlanta unveils its newest destination to the world — the Center of Civil and Human Rights — holding its Grand Opening Celebration on June 23 — opening its doors seven days at week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

What a gem for our city and our state.

And after several pre-visits to the Center, I must admit that I feel a real pride of ownership that Atlanta has risen to the occasion to build a sanctuary where we can pay tribute to our complex, yet progressive past while creating a haven for people to wrestle with the most sensitive issues facing our world today.

A view of new Center of Civil and Human Rights

A view of new Center of Civil and Human Rights

The Center can be a place where we will be able to draw upon our skills of mediation with our sense of compassion for others to seek greater global understanding and good will. What better legacy could exist for Atlanta?

Here are a few highlights of my 2004 column (to read the full AJC article, please go to the end of this column):

For decades, the capital of the New South has been trying to define itself to the rest of the world.

But our brand has been here all along. This is the city that birthed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. In short, the leadership and energy in this city helped change the course of history — not only in the South but for the whole United States.

The column then provided a specific outline of what Atlanta needed to do.

So how can we finally give proper recognition to King and the civil rights movement?

For starters, we need to find a way to keep the King papers, which have been put up for sale by Sotheby’s auction house, in Atlanta.

Another view

Another view

Second, we need to develop a world-class civil rights and human rights museum that explores the history of African-Americans and the relationship of Atlanta’s enlightened business, religious, academic, civic and political leaders dating to the 1960s and before.

This is the time. The King papers have not been sold. And key civil rights leaders are still alive — providing a unique opportunity to have all their papers housed in one place.

In July 2004, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin had been in office for only a year-and-a-half. Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and the late civil rights leader Evelyn Lowery had already urged her to put the building of a Civil Rights Museum on her “to do” list.

But Franklin was busy trying to straighten out the city’s finances and modernize the city’s aging water and sewer system.

After my column ran, A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, decided to hire a team from the Boston Consulting Group to do a feasibility study on whether there was room for another civil rights museum in Atlanta given all the existing attractions across the South and the rest of the country.

Simultaneously, there was a growing desire in the community to keep the King papers in Atlanta.

A view of the Human Rights exhibit

A view of the Human Rights exhibit

Just before Sotheby’s was scheduled to place them up for auction in June, 2006, Mayor Franklin led an 11-day all-out community effort to keep the papers in Atlanta — raising $32 million and negotiating until the final moments to strike a deal that kept the papers from being auctioned off and gave them to Morehouse College with the right to be displayed at a yet-to-be-built civil rights museum in Atlanta.

In October 2006, the Coca-Cola Co. announced that it would donate 2.5 acres of land in between the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola for a civil rights museum, giving the project a real boost.

By December 2006, the Boston Consulting Group’s two team members – Alan Wise and Doug Shipman – issued their report. Yes – building a $100 million civil and human rights center in downtown Atlanta would be a feasible endeavor.

A few key donations followed including $1 million from Turner Broadcasting System in June 2007. But then the Great Recession hit, and fundraising for a Center for Civil and Human Rights was not as robust as planners had hoped.

Photo of Maria Saporta and her son, David Luse, taken at the VIP reception on June 22 (Photo courtesy of the Center)

Photo of Maria Saporta and her son, David Luse, taken at the VIP reception on June 22 (Photo courtesy of the Center)

So they later scaled back the project to make sure that it would not only open up debt-free but it would also be able to operate in the black without having to rely on an annual fundraising drive.

Meanwhile, Shipman traded in his consultant title to become president and CEO of the Center — becoming the voice for what the new destination will mean for Atlanta.

At a VIP reception Sunday afternoon to give donors and board members a preview of the attraction, former Mayor Franklin quoted from a James Taylor song: “We’ve seen fire, and we’ve seen rain.” She laughed about all the ups and downs that the project had endured over the past eight years.

And the she pointed to the great window to the world: “But the sun is shining today,” she said.

For Atlanta, it is a coming home. We are finally finding our place in the world — where we have been and where we are going. The Center is a bridge from our heralded history — a history full of the pain of losing the greatest leaders of several generations — from Martin Luther King Jr. to his widow, Coretta Scott King, to the late Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson to all the brave people who died changing the South from its segregated state of mind.

It’s a bridge to all the current day human rights challenges that face our world, including the role that Atlanta can play in helping make sure that everyone can have clean water, medicine and vaccines, economic opportunity, access to education and freedom of expression — no matter where they live, no matter what gender or race they may be or what sexual preference they have.

As for my 2004 column, I can say that yes, Atlanta is awake – ready to welcome a brand new day.

 

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
July 19, 2004

Civil rights museum a natural for Atlanta 

MARIA SAPORTA
Staff

Atlanta, it’s time to wake up.

For decades, the capital of the New South has been trying to define itself to the rest of the world.

But our brand has been here all along. This is the city that birthed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. In short, the leadership and energy in this city helped change the course of history — not only in the South but for the whole United States.

And yet we have precious little to show about the role Atlanta played in taking the South from a region steeped in slavery and segregation to an integrated society. It’s also a story of black and white leaders — from the 1800s to the present — who set the tone for this tremendous shift in economic and political power.

But no one person played a greater role than Martin Luther King Jr.

We do have the King Center, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site with the birthplace and the “Free At Last” tomb, the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and other landmarks along Auburn Avenue. They are valuable, but they are a modest presentation of what could and should be offered to residents and visitors.

So how can we finally give proper recognition to King and the civil rights movement?

For starters, we need to find a way to keep the King papers, which have been put up for sale by Sotheby’s auction house, in Atlanta.

Second, we need to develop a world-class civil rights and human rights museum that explores the history of African-Americans and the relationship of Atlanta’s enlightened business, religious, academic, civic and political leaders dating to the 1960s and before.

This is the time. The King papers have not been sold. And key civil rights leaders are still alive — providing a unique opportunity to have all their papers housed in one place.

“We have a museum right now that can hold its own with any other museum in the world, but it’s in people’s basements,” says Andy Young, former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador who marched alongside King during the movement.

Young currently houses his personal papers at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African-American Culture and History because he “wanted assurances” that they would be protected.

“I don’t want to sell them. I want to give them away and use my papers as a way of gathering other people’s papers,” Young says. “I really don’t need to make any money from the civil rights movement, more than I already have. But that’s not true for everybody.”

He also believes that Atlanta needs to approach these civil rights leaders “while we are still alive.”

Young hopes a group of local leaders will emerge to buy the King papers, appraised by Sotheby’s to be worth $20 million. Those papers could serve as a catalyst for getting other civil rights leaders to house their papers at one tremendous location — ideally a spectacular museum that would become a signature for Atlanta.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) says, “It would be a shame and a disgrace if those papers were separated and divided and went to the highest bidder. I would love to see all the papers stay in Atlanta.”

Lewis, a civil rights leader in his own right, went to Sotheby’s to look over the King collection. “I have never seen anything that is so incredible in my life,” he says. “He saved everything.”

From notecards to sermons written out in longhand on yellow legal pads to bus tickets, the items in the collection are Atlanta’s crown jewels.

“If we had a place, a civil rights museum in Atlanta with the King papers, I would consider giving my papers also,” Lewis said. “Dr. King had such a major impact on events in this country, we have to preserve and keep the papers in Atlanta.”

Frank Catroppa, superintendent of the National Park Service’s King historic site, couldn’t agree more. He would be willing to work with the community to develop a museum that would become a national and international destination. In fact, the Park Service owns a major block, now an asphalt parking lot, just north of the King Center where such an attraction could be built.

“The papers and the museum don’t necessarily have to be in the same location, but it would be great if they were,” Catroppa says. A model Atlanta should explore, he adds, is the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where a public-private nonprofit partnership developed a first-class tourist attraction.

Already, the King Center attracts thousands more visitors than the Atlanta History Center, the Cyclorama, the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the Fernbank Museum of Natural History and the High Museum of Art.

Atlanta is the No. 1 destination for African-American tourists, and yet we as a community have failed to take full advantage of this captive audience by offering them a state-of-the-art museum on King and the movement.

“I want people to be able to sit in an auditorium and feel as if Martin Luther King is talking to them,” Young says. “Or to feel that the dogs are coming after them. Or see what it’s like to be on a slave ship.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Atlanta could demonstrate once again how this city can meet the challenge of a dream — to show its incredible history in a most powerful way?

“The important people who can make this happen are here in Atlanta,” Catroppa says. “Clearly the innovative thinking is here. The commitment is here. The money is here. If there’s a will to do something, it can happen.”

Atlanta, the opportunity is here. Let’s make it happen.

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

12 replies
  1. SaportaReport says:

    Thanks Tom Johnson. We love to hear that! There are a lot of great things happening in Atlanta right now. Keep reading because Maria never stops reporting!Report

    Reply
  2. Bill Todd says:

    I fondly recall when Billy Payne addressed Atlanta Rotary in 2006,
    the tenth anniversary of the Centennial Olympics. Everyone assumed that
    he would give a reflection on the Games, but he barely mentioned them. 
    His message was that Atlanta needed a new vision, a new rallying point,
    and he said forcefully that it was the Civil and Human Rights Center.

    Success has many fathers and mothers, but Billy’s endorsement was an important contribution.Report

    Reply
  3. ATLpeace says:

    Greetings from Atlanta: City of Peace. Ms. Saporta, I am one of many citizens and fans that appreciates your challenge to Atlanta a decade ago. I really enjoyed reading your article. Our organization is joining peacemakers, local-worldwide, to nurture Atlanta’s greatest asset. We have termed it: “The Gandhi-King Global Peace Connection.” We invite you to again challenge the citizenry so that we may locate the stakeholders we need for propelling the establishment of our envisioned physical and virtual international tourist destination: The Global Peace Museum (GPM). In this 50th anniversary year of Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize, we aspire to succeed so his memory, peace lessons and legacy will be better honored. The GPM prospective design is below…
    http://www.atlantacityofpeace.org/GPM.htmlReport

    Reply
  4. ATLpeace says:

    Bill Todd Wish I would have heard him speak there at Atlanta Rotary in 2006. Regarding the Olympics, here’s a favorite quote I’ve saved from Billy Payne: “The direct legacy is we built $650 million of facilities, all of which were given away, cost and debt free to universities, to the city, to county governments.”Report

    Reply
  5. Noel Mayeske says:

    Maria, I appreciate your early leadership in this arena, and in the nurturing of so many other positive ideas for Atlanta continuing to the present day. Keep it up – Atlanta needs it.
    I’d also like to comment how I appreciate you giving space to opposing views in your publication. I noticed recently the opinion piece you published from one of the Olympic organizers, disagreeing with some points you’d made. Your openness to a variety of ideas – even those specifically criticizing your ideas – is refreshing, and just gives your points even more credence by allowing them to be contested.
    I don’t respond often to the articles in the Saporta Report but read it “cover to cover” (borrowing old-school terminology) each week and thoroughly enjoy it. Keep up the great work!Report

    Reply
  6. mariasaporta says:

    Noel Mayeske Noel, your comments really touched me. Thank you for appreciating what all of us are trying to do on SaportaReport. We want to provide a forum so we can come up with the best ideas together. I certainly don’t have a corner on that market. In fact, when Charlie Battle asked if he could write a column in response to my Olympic column, I welcomed it, and I told him I probably would end up agreeing with him on some of his points. Our columns generated a third about the Paralympic Games and the legacy of BlazeSports. It makes me feel really good that we can provide a forum to review history – and make history. Thank you so much. I’m honored that you’re a reader. MariaReport

    Reply

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