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Legends, leaders on hand for civil rights center groundbreaking

The equivalent of Atlanta royalty—members of civil rights dynasties like the Kings, the Farrises, the Youngs, and the Lowerys; top city officials, including Mayors Reed, Franklin, and Massell; and c-level executives from The Coca-Cola Company, Delta, and Georgia-Pacific—all turned out Wednesday for the official groundbreaking of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (NCCHR) at Pemberton Place. In fact, the generally unflappable Monica Pearson, who served as MC, was in trouble once she strayed from her script and started inviting individual VIPs to get up from their seats on the lawn and join the centerstage groundbreaking photo op.

Sure, Christine King Farris and Xernona Clayton were no-brainers, and the shout outs to Bernice King and Isaac Farris were understandable, but things got complicated when she started inviting pastors—the applause erupting from Rev. C.T. Vivian’s camp seeming a tad partisan for a day celebrating unity.

Nonetheless, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce couldn’t have ordered a lovelier blue sky for the historic moment. When Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, asked the crowd to join hands for the invocation, the solidarity was indeed palpable. “Freedom is not a destination,” he said, “but a journey.”

As the morning heated up, attendees fanned themselves and sipped from bottles of Dasani as politicians and corporate sponsors delivered speeches, with interludes courtesy of R&B duo Les Nubians and singer/songwriter Shawn Mullins. The actress Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls, Mad Men), who’d joined other celebrities in an NCCHR performance benefit of Speak Truth to Power on Tuesday, stood quietly under the shade of an umbrella and watched the event (right).

Aside from thanking donors and supporters, the dominant theme was that the center is planned to serve as a catalyst for ongoing rights work.

“This is going to be more than a museum,” said Mayor Kasim Reed. “This is going to be a building and an institution that’s alive. It’s going to represent the present, the past, and the future. It’s going to move from new to next and from better to best.”

Speaking after all the photo ops were done, Bernice King, youngest child of Martin Luther King Jr. and current head of the King Center, said that the NCCHR “represents an accountability factor for the city,” and that her hope is “Atlanta will rise to the occasion and continue the work of my father and others. The city cannot escape its legacy.” Judy Forte, who supervises the National Parks Service-run King National Historic Site across the street from the family-run King Center, said that the NCCHR would be an “opportunity to reach out to a wider circle” of visitors to Atlanta. The NCCHR will be connected to the King district on Auburn Avenue via the new Atlanta Streetcar line.

The $65 million Phase One of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights is scheduled to open debt free in mid-2014. Initially outlined by Mayor Shirley Franklin and Ambassador Andrew Young in 2005, the idea gained traction when Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers almost went on the auction block at Sotheby’s in 2006. An anonymous group—corralled largely through the efforts of Franklin and corporate leaders— purchased the papers for Morehouse College, which will house its MLK collection at the new 35,000 square-foot facility. Founding Sponsor Coca-Cola donated the $12 million parcel of land, next to the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola, in 2008. Speaking on behalf of Coca-Cola, Chief Administrative Officer Alexander Cummings said, “Our support demonstrates our commitment to Atlanta, the place where our company was born.” He said the center would not only chronicle the past but provide a “touchstone” to shape the future.

Presentations continued at the post-groundbreaking luncheon in the ballroom of the Georgia Aquarium. The first announcement was of a surprise, anonymous donation that would create “Shirley Franklin Day” at the NCCHR, an annual day with free admission and special programming for kids in grades K-12. The donation is a nod to Franklin’s finagling of free admission to the Atlanta History Center for kids when selections of the MLK Collection were on display there after the acquisition by the civic group. The other big announcement was a $350,000 donation from law firm Jones Day.

Phase One of the NCCHR will include 18,000 square feet of exhibitions, event spaces, and a broadcast studio—all LEED-certified beneath a green roof. Two monumental, curved exterior walls will cradle the structure like two hands. Fundraising for Phase Two, exhibitions, and programming is in progress. Attendees at the event were repeatedly reminded that they could make mobile donations at rightsgift.org.