Atlanta Embraces Its Civil Rights History

The National Center for Civil and Human Rights is set to open this May in Atlanta, celebrating the city's connection with Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Atlanta was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, functioning as a meeting place for several civil rights organizations, including the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). It was the birthplace of Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jr., the site of riots over lunch-counter desegregration and the site of many non-violent protests over civil rights.

Today, the city is capitalizing more on that connection with civil rights and non-violence. The well-established King Center and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Park (both in Atlanta's Sweet Auburn neighborhood) have long put the city on the map as a travel destination for learning about social change, and this year, the National Center for Civil & Human Rights will add to Atlanta's draw when it opens to the public in May.

A rendering of the under-construction National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta

The $75-million project has been in the works since 2005 and already has numerous events and exhibitions in the works. A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, says the center “represents … the soul of Atlanta,” giving the city a unique “opportunity … to not only tell the story of why Atlanta was special during the civil rights movement, but use that to inspire people into human rights, into civic engagement, into making the world a better place.”

The Center, currently in its final stages of production, will ultimately house three main exhibition elements. The first is a collection of Martin Luther King Jr. documents purchased from Morehouse College. The collection will be rotated every four months to keep its contents fresh. The second, says CEO Doug Shipman, is a “series of galleries around civil rights history … why Atlanta was a place of leadership … and the stories of young people during the civil rights movement.” The final element focuses on human rights.

Events are already lining up in anticipation of the opening. The Center has partnered with CNN and Emory University for a “town-hall style series of events” focusing on issues from the Arab Spring to women’s issues. In 2013, the Center sponsored a group of college students, sending them to the anniversary march on Washington “to record oral histories of [attendees] who had been there at the original march.”

The Center itself is in Pemberton Place near Centennial Olympic Park, built on land donated by Coca-Cola. Designed by Phillip Freelon, currently the architect for the latest Smithsonian project, it features a green roof that captures and recycles water for landscaping, regulates the building’s temperature and helps save on energy costs. The Center's ultimate goals, according to Shipman and Robinson, are to demonstrate that “individuals are the engines behind these grand social movements” and to create a space "where when you leave, you’re inspired to change the world"—concepts of which Martin Luther King Jr. would be proud.