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New civil rights museum also explores human rights

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 | 6:28 p.m. CDT
An exhibit depicting life in America during the 1950s and '60s for whites on the left and blacks on the right greets visitors to the newly built National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. The new museum about the history of civil rights opens next week in Atlanta, the city where Martin Luther King Jr. was based. But the National Center for Civil and Human Rights also explores other human rights struggles.

ATLANTA — A new museum about the history of civil rights opens next week in Atlanta, the city where Martin Luther King Jr. was based. But the National Center for Civil and Human Rights also explores other human rights struggles, including women's rights issues, LGBT issues, immigration and child labor.

The museum devotes separate galleries to modern human rights issues and the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, but it also demonstrates how the struggles are related. Visitors learn through interactive exhibits and stories of real people.

If you go

National Center for Civil and Human Rights

  • Address: 100 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd., Atlanta
  • Website: civilandhumanrights.org
  • Phone: 678-999-8990.
  • Hours: Open daily beginning June 23, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Cost: Adults, $15; students and seniors, $13; children 3 to 12, $10.

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Permanent exhibits include a timeline about the civil rights movement and King's personal papers, but the museum also has a changing series of displays about ongoing struggles worldwide. The museum sits at one end of Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, near attractions such as the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca-Cola.

The museum was established in part to connect the movement's legacy to the present day, said CEO Doug Shipman, a sentiment shared by King's daughter Bernice.

"I think it's important that those of us who have knowledge of the civil rights movement, that we continue to connect the dots for the next generation, that we not only share the stories of history but try to relate some of what happened in the '50s and '60s to the now," Bernice King said.

One particularly emotional exhibit looks at the civil rights movement's lunch-counter protests, in which black students staged sit-ins, demanding to be served food alongside whites. When visitors don headphones and place their hands on a lunch counter, they hear increasingly intense taunts and threats endured by protesters.

Another exhibit showcases the 1963 March on Washington. Snippets of famous speeches made that day — like King's "I Have a Dream" speech — can be heard, but more engaging is a series of images projected in a space that mimics the Lincoln Memorial, where the march culminated. Photos and video clips show people preparing for the march, participants waving signs, civil rights leaders speaking and audience reaction.

"We're trying to produce the feeling, 'I wish I was there,'" Shipman said. Full audio of speeches and text panels about the march are also displayed.

Other highlights of the civil rights section include rotating exhibits of King's papers in an intimate room where "I Have a Dream" is projected on the wall in 25 different languages; mug shots of Freedom Riders shown on the exterior of a bus that doubles as a theater showing a film about the riders; and exhibits about those who died in the struggle as well as Atlanta's role in the movement.

While the civil rights sections look back at history, the human rights gallery has a more contemporary focus. Here visitors are invited to identify with particular human rights struggles using interactive mirrors, followed by a primer on human rights. Activists selected by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch are shown in nearly life-size photos representing immigrant rights and disability rights in the U.S.; women's rights in Iran; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Russia; and HIV/AIDS issues in China.

Also featured: a who's who of human rights activists — Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi — along with a lineup of villains — Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot.

Another exhibit explores the ethical footprint of consumer products. It explains that workers who harvest cut flowers are sometimes exposed to dangerous pesticides; that cellphones contain minerals that are sometimes at the root of violent conflicts; and that products such as cocoa and soccer balls are sometimes made by child laborers in oppressive conditions.

Shipman said the museum won't shy away from controversial topics but also is not going to pick sides.

"We want to be a place to have a very tough conversation in a civil way," he said.

The building symbolizes its theme. Curved exterior walls resemble hands coming together. The green grass roof evokes parks and squares where protests often occur. Exterior panels in neutral shades of tan and brown fit together, representing individual pieces comprising a whole. Walls of windows at each end signify openness to the outside.


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