Spring 2009: Features
The Dream Center
Emory adds voices to a new Atlanta landmark
By Charles McNair
In 2012, doors will open in Atlanta on a new kind of dream fulfilled: the Center for Civil and Human Rights.
“The center will explore not only Atlanta’s historical role in civil and human rights movements, but also host ongoing, ever-changing exhibitions, speakers, activities, and performances that anticipate future rights struggles . . . and even help shape their stories,” says Doug Shipman 95C, executive director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights (CCHR) Partnership, the coalition responsible for its development. The downtown facility, adjacent to two popular attractions, the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coke, will be a “living organism,” as Shipman describes it.
As home to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and others who believed freedom was a right due people of all colors, Atlanta, to much of the world, has come to symbolize the civil rights movement. It’s the city of Ebenezer Baptist Church, of notable African American cultural achievement, and of enduring minority colleges, businesses, and organizations.
But this is the South, and the seeds of progress here were watered with blood.
On September 22, 1906, in the swelter of long-ago dog days, as many as ten thousand whites brutally attacked Atlanta’s black businesses and citizens. Incited by race-baiting candidates for governor who sought to keep black voters from the polls, the mob boiled over into violence when questionable newspaper headlines alleged attacks by blacks on white women. It took five days, the mobilization of state militia, and a soaking thunderstorm to end widespread burnings, beatings, stabbings, and lynchings. As many as forty African Americans were murdered. The shock wave from the riots, chronicled in Emory professor Mark Bauerlein’s 2002 book, Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906, rolled across the nation.
No one wanted the kind of reputation such racial violence brought the city. So out of the ashes a dialogue developed, through back channels, between the leaders of two Atlantas, black and white.
Through passing years, the conversation continued. Tensions arose at times, especially as blacks began more boldly to seek equality during the civil rights movement. Nevertheless, in Atlanta, unlike many other major cities, glimmerings of racial understanding and common interest conceived after the Atlanta riots kept the city largely free from new flames and bloodshed.
The peace held through the turbulent 1960s. Even when King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, restraint, rather than riots, ruled the day. And with King’s funeral here, and the outpourings of respect and honor from all corners of the world that followed his martyrdom, Atlanta found itself central to the world’s vision of nonviolent civil and human rights efforts.
The dream, of course, didn’t die with King.
Lieutenants in the civil rights movement began working to spread the nonviolence message. Joseph Lowery, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), became an outspoken champion in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. Andrew Young became United Nations Ambassador and championed human rights to the international community from that bully pulpit. John Lewis went to the U.S. Congress and offered a constant, outspoken voice on rights issues.
Somehow, emissaries of human rights from a most unlikely place—a business-first city in the heart of the conservative American South—had gradually ennobled their home city. Atlanta became a sort of new Geneva, a city identified with peacemaking and justice.
Now, leaders hope, the CCHR will symbolize this notion to the world.
In the beginning
In 2005, Evelyn Lowery and Juanita Abernathy—wives, respectively, of Joseph Lowery and the late Ralph David Abernathy, notable champions of the civil rights movement—along with Ambassador Young and U.S. Representative Lewis approached Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin with a long-simmering idea: the creation of a center to commemorate the central role of Atlanta and its citizens in the work of civil and human rights.
The idea was just that—an idea, a gleam in someone’s eye. But the trove of local resources—the historical sites, the living legends of the civil rights movement, the easily accessible historical documents—made the idea’s potential most obvious.
Mayor Franklin made things happen. By summer 2005, Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) and the Boston Consulting Group, a consulting firm used by the city (and Shipman’s employer at the time), plus other community leaders, were touring civil rights museums in Birmingham, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C., benchmarking and gathering ideas.
In December 2006, the working group recommended to the mayor that “a Center should be established to commemorate the groundbreaking contributions of Atlantans and Georgians to the historic struggle for African American freedom and equality, and also serve as a space for ongoing dialogue, study, and contributions to the resolution of current and future freedom struggles of all people at the local, national, and international level.”
Serious fund-raising started in 2007, and a content committee—led by Emory Provost, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Asa Griggs Candler Professor of History and African American Studies Earl Lewis—began dreaming up what visitors might experience at the center. Architectural concepts came to light in 2008, and five competing firms presented models in early 2009.
After four years of development, there’s some urgency to the project now.
“We want to capture the first-person stories of the unsung heroes of the civil rights and human rights movement while the opportunity exists,” says Shipman, executive director of the CCHR Partnership, who came aboard full time at the request of Franklin in 2007 and has led the fund-raising, design, and content efforts. “Some of those people are getting on up in years now.”
So what will visitors see when they walk into this dramatically designed, ultra-ambitious new center? And what is the center, exactly? A museum? A think tank? A forum? A performance space? A lecture hall? A protest site?
Well . . . yes.
“The center will be a living place that will hold national and global exhibitions, conferences, performances, and events while also serving as a catalyst for Atlanta organizations and individuals to discuss civil and human rights issues,” Shipman explains. “It will be a focal point for the most important legacy Atlanta maintains—ongoing leadership on issues of civil and human rights.”
The CCHR will house three permanent exhibitions: Before the civil rights movement, the civil rights era in Atlanta and Georgia, and human rights movements influenced by Atlanta and Georgia. One of the primary attractions will be the King papers. King’s letters and official documents were purchased for $32 million through a privately financed loan in 2006, then donated to Morehouse College. Notable documents will be on display in the permanent exhibition of the CCHR, and the collection will be available to scholars and journalists, among others.
“We made a decision at the start to design the center from the inside out,” says Ellen Mendelsohn 01C, senior project manager in economic development with CAP. She’s been on the working team for the CCHR since 2006 and now oversees the project management team handling design of the building and other work (budgets, engineering) in the run-up to construction. “Rather than find an architect to design a building first, we wanted to consider the content that would be inside the center and then understand the visitor experience. We could design a building around that.”
The last thing planners wanted to see was a stuffy museum—a facility that would grow more stagnant with each visit. The center’s design allows for optional viewing according to taste or interest.
Provost Lewis led a high-profile concept group with the critical job of determining what should go on public view inside the CCHR once the building is completed. The committee aimed for a dynamic, transforming environment.
“We wanted a sense of history, of course,” says Lewis, “but we also wanted to conjure up a sense of materials changing, events changing. We wanted some rooms dedicated to materials, but elsewhere a living center.”
Lewis’s content committee included noted scholars, civil rights legends, and community leaders. It was a lion-tamer’s job, but Lewis applauds the deep commitment to the greater good his diverse group consistently showed.
“Even during moments with different perspectives and different emphases, no one lost sight of the fact that they wanted the center to get off the ground and benefit Atlanta,” Lewis explains. “And we knew we had a deadline, we knew our job was to go out of business. Once we defined our boundaries, people talked as much as they wanted, then we’d bring it back in.”
The dollars and sense
Of course, this wouldn’t be an Atlanta project without a compelling business case. The center comes with a $125 million price tag and an annual cost of $13 million. But with 600,000 to 800,000 annual guests, with revenue from tickets, food, merchandise, and parking, and with contributions from corporate and private sources, the center looks like a shiny new piston for Atlanta’s economic engine. The CCHR is projected to generate $1.3 billion in its first decade (plus millions in taxes), and to create 1,150 sustainable jobs, along with 1,550 construction and support jobs during two years of construction.
But there’s really much more than money at work.
“It’s a game-changer in the history of Atlanta,” says A. J. Robinson 77B, who heads Central Atlanta Progress, a key member organization in the CCHR Partnership. Robinson focuses on economic development, planning, public safety, sidewalk environments, transportation, events, and overall marketing for downtown Atlanta, including the new CCHR. A longtime associate of John Portman, the noted architect and developer whose hotels and high-rises largely make up the distinctive Atlanta skyline, Robinson compares the CCHR to other transformative events and constructions—Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the 1996 Centennial Olympics, CNN.
“Atlanta is the capital of the whole South,” Robinson says. “And we have lots of assets, but there’s really nothing here currently to speak to what makes it special. We’re moving from a city that’s a meeting place to a city that has something to say. No other place can lay claim to the title of the cradle of the civil rights movement, the cradle of human rights. Those are rooted in history right here. And creating this center makes Atlanta important in the future as a place to continue to bring these issues and discussions. It makes us relevant to the whole world.”
A portal to progress
Planners for the CCHR often use the word portal to describe it. It’s a term with particular significance for Emory and other area learning institutions.
“The idea is that the center becomes a key institutional partner with a school like Emory for discussions of rights and freedoms,” says Shipman. “The center will serve as a key ‘stage’ for Emory, as just one example, to use for programs it sponsors. An Emory faculty member can appear here to discuss a book. A part of Emory can hold a conference on a relevant rights issue. You’ll see an Emory expert being interviewed in the media center here on a breaking civil or human rights issue. Holdings from Emory’s Special Collections, such as the recently acquired Southern Christian Leadership Conference Papers, will be perfectly showcased here.”
The center will serve as a catalyst for drawing visitors to historic sites all over the city and across Georgia. The CCHR portal could potentially link library collections—Emory to the historically black colleges and universities to the King Center to the Sweet Auburn Historical District to The Carter Center to Georgia State University.
“The center will create a consortium that enhances all partners,” says Provost Lewis. “We’re building on the structure and content already here in Atlanta, making it easier to get, packaging it. Our scholars, our resources, and our research will all have a new and important exposure through the CCHR. The center will be a place where Emory projects itself and its members to a broader world.”
Old stories, and new
One notable feature of the Center for Civil and Human Rights will be an area where visitors can tell their personal stories and leave them for posterity. Some of these captured histories can be creatively transformed, thanks to advanced technology at the center, into scenarios that allow storytellers to write themselves into moments in history. It’s a novel means of bonding visitors emotionally to what they experience at the center, of immersing them in past reality with all its emotional power.
The CCHR planners with Emory connections have stories, too, of how their experiences at Emory and elsewhere prepared them for this historic project.
Doug Shipman was born in Bull Shoals, Arkansas, the son of a preacher, in a community with little diversity. Raised in churches with hard pews and hard beliefs, he says he came to grow up at Emory. He later shipped off to study public policy and divinity at Harvard. Does he see an irony in the fact that he now leads the efforts to create a monument to diversity?
“You could say the CCHR project really started for me at Emory,” Shipman says. “I took many, many courses on issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and religion while at Emory—all the issues involved in civil and human rights. I think the experiences at Emory both inside and outside the classroom—where I could learn in an atmosphere I’ll call safely provocative—really opened me up to all the issues we talk about every day in building the center.”
Although her background is radically different, Mendelsohn shares a similar Emory experience. Mendelsohn is Jewish, a native of conservative east Cobb County, Georgia, where she went to a high school that she describes as 1 percent Jewish and 1 percent African American. Her affinity for the CCHR stems, in part, from knowing that “Jews played such a huge role in the civil rights movement.”
“I majored in sociology at Emory, studying the systems in which communities live and work,” Mendelsohn says. “It enabled me to analyze the dynamics of groups. My studies as well as social experiences at Emory taught me how to bring people with different backgrounds together for a common good.”
A. J. Robinson, who is also Jewish, says, “I went to Emory when Emory wasn’t cool. I got a great foundation, a great formative education over there between North Decatur and Clifton roads. This was the mid-1970s, and when I walked across the campus in those days you could see the first downtown skyscrapers over the tops of the trees. I remember seeing the seventy stories of the Westin Peachtree Plaza, and it was thrilling. It gave you the impression that anything was possible.”
The Emory of today, Lewis points out, is 10 percent African American, about 30 percent Jewish, and Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist students fill classrooms.
“We’re not solely a regional institution anymore,” he says. “We’re a national institution that touches the world. Universities today do a better job of bringing people from diverse backgrounds together than almost any other institution.”
Emory, and now the CCHR, connect these key members of a team creating from thin air and ideas a jewel in the crown of the City Too Busy to Hate. They’re working the fields of possibility together with African American civil rights heroes and elected officials, and a diverse cast of community leaders, scholars, donors, volunteers, and activists.
Does this scene seem familiar?
Once, white and black citizens came together following the Atlanta race riots, searching the ashes for common ground, common interest, greater good. And soon, Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights, this creation shaped by so many voices and ideals, this monument to a legacy of nonviolence and to the constant dialogue over rights and freedoms, will tell the world a new, beautiful story.
Charles McNair is a Pulitzer-nominated novelist and a communications consultant who lives in Atlanta. He also is the book editor at Paste Magazine.