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New civil rights center is more than a museum

Posted: July 1, 2014 - 11:15pm

ATLANTA — Last week’s ribbon cutting at the Center for Civil and Human Rights and this fall’s opening of the College Football Hall of Fame add a pair of attractions to help strengthen Georgia’s tourism industry.

They join the World of Coke, CNN Center and the Georgia Aquarium in clustering around Centennial Park, itself an attraction for fans of the Centennial Olympic Games that Georgia hosted in 1996.

But the civil rights center aspires to be more than a museum for tourists to relive the turmoil of the 1950s and ’60s. Certainly, they can see examples of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s original texts in his elegant script and search in vain for grammatical errors. They can hear segregationists on video explain their philosophy in their own words. There is a lunch counter where they can hear taunts and feel their chair being kicked, and they can climb a stairway leading them through the bloody scene of King’s murder and the resulting riots and fires.

“We will never tell them what to think in the end, but we hope that they will think in the end,” said Doug Shipman, the center’s CEO.

To make a somber subject palatable and interesting for both white southerners and blacks as well as those too young or too removed from the historic events, the exhibits were designed by Broadway director George C. Wolfe of Angels in America and Lucky Guy.

There are other museums and monuments to the same events scattered across the South. What has the potential to make this one have a bigger impact is its added focus on current struggles for human rights around the globe.

“We wanted there to be no distinction between civil and human rights,” Shipman said.

One-third of the exhibit space is devoted to human rights, with exhibits on Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and others as well as displays about contemporary groups with grievances here and abroad such as women, gays, farm workers, immigrants and the disabled.

Plans are to widen the scope even further, beyond the confines of the building, by hosting conferences, sponsoring educational forums and attracting world-famous speakers and artists.

On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta in which thousands of whites fought and gave their lives on behalf of blacks, the center must travel down a fine line. As its exhibit on the Freedom Riders shows in the dozens of whites in mug shots on display, the cause of blacks’ civil rights were advanced with the support of many whites, from those who joined protests to those who dominated government. If the center allows itself to be viewed as merely a shrine to black suffering, it will diminish its impact.

As was the case 150 years ago and also 50 years ago, many white Southerners resisted reforms advocated by people from other parts of the country, not because they either owned slaves or were hateful, bigoted people, but because they bristled at what they perceived as self-righteous condescension from outsiders. The center has the ability to rekindle such emotions if it bogs down in the past instead of aiming for the future.

Georgia, and specifically Atlanta, is the birthplace of the civil rights movement, a legacy that gives credibility to the center’s goal of becoming a nexus of ideas. So, the Center for Civil and Human Rights has the opportunity to be more than another tourist attraction. It can be a potent force for the state in the 21st Century, shaping political debates and cultural norms.

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