Spurred on by 50th anniversaries of landmark events, high-profile civil rights museums are springing up across the South, with Atlanta leading the charge.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, part of a $70 million state bicentennial facility, aims to open in Jackson in 2017. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot, reopened in April after a $27.5 million renovation. Though not civil rights focused, two further related projects include Charleston’s $75 million International African American Museum, due to open 2018, and Washington D.C.’s $500 million Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, slated for 2016.
But it was Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights that raised the bar when it opened in June at a cost of $80 million. The city was already a major destination for those interested in learning about the Civil Rights Movement and its most prominent voice, Martin Luther King Jr. Visitors can follow his life from the cradle to the grave — his birth home and tomb are a short walk from each other at the King National Historic Site, which includes the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he and his father preached and a small visitor center, eloquently covering civil rights and King’s message.
The King Collection
Later this year, Atlanta’s new streetcar system will run along Auburn Avenue, joining the King Site to downtown, where the Center for Civil and Human Rights is located. Gabe Wardell, director of group sales at Atlanta’s latest attraction, believes the new museum complements the existing sites. “There are things at the King Site that are irreplaceable,” he says. “You’ve got his birth home and the public space is designed to tell you his story. What we are doing here is not just telling King’s story, we are telling the larger civil rights story and then connecting it to human rights.”
The stamp of Atlanta’s most famous son, however, is all over the center, and the very heart of its exhibits — the King Collection — is the reason it exists. His heirs initiated a Sotheby’s auction of his documents without offering first option on the papers to King’s hometown. Eight years ago, Atlanta’s mayor at the time, Shirley Franklin, and King’s friend and fellow civil rights activist, Andrew Young, stepped in and secured them for the city’s Morehouse College, King’s alma mater.
“Morehouse are the stewards of King’s papers, and we are the exclusive home for displaying these items,” explains Wardell, giving a private tour of the 40,000-square-foot facility. “Once Atlanta won the bid, the idea came what do we do with it? How do we house this? That was the germ of the idea for the Center of Civil and Human Rights.”
Here, the King Collection is permanently housed in a public arena for the very first time. Wardell points out several of King’s personal effects currently on display, including his school report card covering 1948-1951. Although he was one of the most famous orators of the 20th century, King got merely Cs for public speaking. “It’s like giving Einstein an F in physics,” says Wardell, who suggests starting a visit to the Center at the King Collection, one of three main areas in the new museum.
Another important artifact here is the handwritten note King carried in his wallet to remind him of Gandhi, whose use of non-violent protest influenced King. “This is one of the pieces I believe connects you from here to the global stage. This idea that Gandhi’s words influenced King and King’s words influenced Mandela and beyond, really gives you that sense of continuity,” adds Wardell.
Connecting Civil and Human Rights
The center claims its uniqueness as a space covering the Civil Rights Movement, which peaked in the South in the ’50s and ’60s, and also human rights, a continuing struggle.
“We are the first institution to really connect those two,” says Wardell. “Atlanta is such a great location for a space like this, because we really cross that threshold from being a local place known for civil rights to being an international city, a hub of commerce, a hub of discussions about things like human trafficking. The international community here is thriving. That makes us a really great destination.” (Atlanta will host the gathering of the Nobel Peace Laureates in 2015.)
“Gathering” is an apt word for the center, designed by architect Phil Freelon to look, from above, like a place where people unite. “It’s even got a green roof and the idea is it is a gathering place that has the look and feel of an outdoor public space,” continues Wardell. “If you look at it from the top, it looks almost like two hands gathering together to create a public space for conversation and dialogue. We wanted to create a space where people come together and have conversations in a safe environment about controversial issues, about issues of conflict and hopefully how to resolve those issues.”
The building’s shape means that it narrows as it moves up from the King Collection at the base to the Civil Rights Gallery and then finally to the Human Rights Gallery at the top. There’s also a change of mood from the reflective, intimate King space up to the Civil Rights Gallery covering turbulent, often dark times and then ending in the lighter space at the summit, where hope for current and future struggles are tackled.
The Civil Rights Gallery challenges you to step back in time several decades to the era of segregation. The center is proud of its state-of-the-art interactive features, especially the recreation of a sit-in counter where a digital clock counts down how long you can stand the binaural sounds — and a little movement — of harassment and intimidation. Keep in mind this is just a fraction of what faced brave, young students in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960.
“It’s not just history on a wall,” adds Wardell. Neither is it Disney World, given its subject matter, though it has a theatrical bent, having been put together by Broadway director George C. Wolfe.
The gallery moves on to a large open space full of the sights and sounds of the March on Washington, where King delivered his “I have a dream speech” just over 50 years ago. It’s both celebratory and moving, enough, to move Andrew Young to tears on a recent visit. The march changed hearts and minds, but it was far from being the end of the story. Dark times followed and, in the center, visitors continue their journey with dimly lit exhibits, such as an evocation of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four little girls met their deaths at the hands of white supremacists just 18 days after the March on Washington.
The next room covers King’s death, as announced by Walter Cronkite’s CBS news report from the day of the assassination in 1968. Over the top of rarely seen footage of the funeral procession in Atlanta, King’s own prescient words ring out, foretelling his ultimate sacrifice.
Call to Action
The Move, Free, Act Gallery breaks up the journey between the Civil Rights and Human Rights sections, echoing King’s words that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Images and sounds of freedom and equality fights across the globe, including disability rights and LGBT issues, are projected here. Wardell hopes that #movefreeact will become a popular hashtag with visitors, along with #findinspirationinside. (Follow the center on Twitter @Ctr4CHR.) “We want people to come here and not just think, ‘I learned something’ but ‘I want to do something,’” Wardell explains.
A call to action is the ultimate goal of the Human Rights Gallery. It begins with opposing walls, including the “Offenders” — Hitler, Stalin, Pinochet, Mao, Assad, etc., covering each continent. The “Defenders” of human rights include Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mandela and, of course, King. Visitors can gather in small groups under cone-shaped sound booths to hear stories from current human rights activists and, at the far end of the gallery, view a giant map of countries color-coded by political freedoms.
The estimated 400,000 visitors per year finish their tour at the Share Your Voice booth, where reactions to the museum or personal dreams for the future can be recorded.
Just beyond, the glass exterior looks out on to Pemberton Place and neighboring downtown sites such as the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola Museum. (The center is built on land donated by Coca-Cola.) “We join a trifecta of sites, and we become part of a larger landscape. We’ll join City Pass and in all likelihood there’ll be some sort of Pemberton Place deal for just the three attractions,” concludes Wardell, adding that recent downtown additions, the SkyView Ferris Wheel, reopening of the rotating Polaris restaurant and the newly opened College Football Hall of Fame bolster the area as a tourist destination.
But it’s the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. that makes the most profound impact on Atlanta. Throughout the Center for Civil and Human Rights, the materials and motifs used in the design of the King Collection reappear. His message and his voice resonate on every floor, often recalling those remarkable, inspiring speeches several classes above the C grades on his school report.
The National Center for Civil and Human Rights is located at 100 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd. in Atlanta. General admission tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for children. The center is open Monday-Sunday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Visit the South’s Other Civil Rights Museums
A Woolworth’s lunch counter, a downtown motel, a bus stop … these are the ordinary places where extraordinary things happened. They are now connected to the most potent civil rights museums in the South.
Civil Rights Institute
Powerful and moving museum opposite the 16th Street Baptist Church where, in September 1963, a Ku Klux Klan bomb killed four black girls aged 11 to 14. Their story is part of the compelling narrative at the institute, which is alive with the inspirational deeds of icons such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. The original jail cell where he penned his eloquent “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is on display.
National Civil Rights Museum
It’s an unsettling experience to stand at the very spot where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis. Following a $27.5 million renovation, the building fully reopened on April 5, the day after the 46th anniversary of his death. Visitors can also stand close to where convicted assassin James Earl Ray pointed his rifle at the balcony opposite. There’s a heavy focus on Ray and the assassination, but new exhibitions redress this imbalance by chronicling African American history and milestones of the Civil Rights Movement.
International Civil Rights Center & Museum
Greensboro, North Carolina
“Birthplace of the civil rights movement” reads a plaque outside this former Woolworth’s store, which opened as a museum on February 1, 2010, half a century to the day that an important non-violent protest took place. Tours start where four young black men sat at the then “whites only” lunch counter. The students returned each day, in greater numbers, until the store was desegregated. An interactive display charts the ripple effect Greensboro sit-ins started across the South. Artifacts include a double-sided Coca-Cola vending machine — one half for whites, one half for blacks.
Rosa Parks Library and Museum
Rosa Parks made a stand when she took her seat on a Montgomery bus and refused to surrender it to boarding whites, flouting the law back then in 1955. Opposite the bus stop where she boarded, the museum has a replica public bus as part of its display that transports visitors back in time to the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. The 382-day Montgomery Bus Boycott, a critical victory involving Martin Luther King Jr., broke the segregated system.
National Voting Rights Museum & Institute
Almost a decade after the Montgomery events, in March 1965 Dr. King led a group of protesters to Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, the scene of Bloody Sunday a few days earlier. Here, marchers protesting the fatal shooting of an unarmed voting rights advocate faced brutal attacks by mounted state troopers. The museum is located at the foot of the bridge and depicts Selma struggles 50 years ago – also the subject of a new Oprah Winfrey film, Selma. The protests led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting.
Civil Rights Institute
Albany Civil Rights Institute relates the city’s part in the larger story of the Civil Rights Movement during 1961 and 1962. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the Shiloh Baptist Church, where the Albany Movement was founded, and to crowds crammed into the church opposite, the Old Mount Zion Church, next door to the museum. King was arrested twice in Albany. One local activist, Rutha Mae Harris, who spent time in jail for the Albany movement, continues to sing gospel-inspired freedom songs from the ’60s at 1 p.m. every second Saturday of the month at Old Mount Zion Church.
Central High School National Historic Site Visitor Center
Little Rock, Arkansas
In 1957, the ‘Little Rock Nine’, as they became known, were the first black students enrolled into the all-white Little Rock Central High School. In defiance of a 1954 ruling to integrate public schools, the state’s governor deployed the Arkansas National Guard to block the young men and women from entering the school. The desegregation crisis received international attention when President Eisenhower sent in an army division and federalized the Arkansas National Guard to control the situation. Opened in 2007, Little Rock’s National Historic Site Visitor Center covers these events. It’s located across from the school, which still functions today.
Photo credits, from top: Center interior and center exterior by Lee Howard, Global Human Rights Gallery cone video theater copyright Albert Vecerka/Esto and Rockwell Group, Justice mural and National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis by Lee Howard and Rosa Parks bust by Deep South Magazine.