Preview: Center for Civil and Human Rights

The facility’s goal is to connect historic struggles with ongoing injustices

Illustration by Bryan Christie Design

Nearly a decade ago, Evelyn Lowery, Juanita Abernathy, and Andrew Young met with then mayor Shirley Franklin to officially launch a project that civic leaders had been dreaming about for far longer. That vision comes to life this month as the Center for Civil and Human Rights opens its doors. The $65 million facility, located next to the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola, is more thinktank than museum—though it does contain the only public display of Martin Luther King Jr.’s personal papers. The facility’s intentionally nonpartisan goal is to connect historic struggles with ongoing injustices around the world. Through three galleries—dedicated to MLK, civil rights, and human rights—the center shares story after story of both everyday people and civic leaders. The narratives, as well as symposia, speakers, and conferences (including events during the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize summit), aim “to empower people to take the protection of every human’s rights personally.” Characteristically of Atlanta, it is a fundamentally optimistic place, celebrating the triumphs of past movements and voicing hope for future victories.

What’s inside

Lower floor
A thirty-eight-foot-tall art installation comprising images of Martin Luther King Jr. points the way to the downstairs gallery featuring his papers and artifacts, co-owned by Morehouse College and purchased in 2006 for $32 million by a group of local donors headed by Franklin—just as the collection was about to go under the gavel at Sotheby’s. Displays will rotate every few months to limit exposure to daylight. Opening exhibits include a hand-edited draft of MLK’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and the briefcase King was using when he was assassinated.

Ground floor
The entrance to the civil rights gallery is a tunnel chronicling daily life in Jim Crow–era Atlanta. Look for family photos of weddings, graduations, and picnics, as well as images of Sweet Auburn landmarks in their heyday.

Symbolically and physically, visitors pass through a brightly lit portal commemorating the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to see how the movement gained momentum after that pivotal ruling.

Another space is dedicated to stories about the movement’s lesser-known heroes. For example, read about Claudette Colvin, the first person arrested for resisting bus segregation in Alabama. Because Colvin was a pregnant teenager, however, leaders ultimately chose middle-aged seamstress Rosa Parks as the public face of the protest.

The March on Washington exhibit is the gallery’s most celebratory, with a thirty-foot-wide display produced by the multimedia firm Batwin Robin, which has created gallery spaces for the Library of Congress and Centers for Disease Control. In fact, all center exhibits promise theatrical impact, as Tony-winning Broadway director George C. Wolfe (Angels in America; Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk) is the chief creative officer.

The On That Day space explores the impact of MLK’s assassination. Watch period footage of TV anchors breaking the news.

One wall of the lobby will feature a montage of protest posters—both vintage pieces and new illustrations—created by Paula Scher of the internationally known design firm Pentagram. (Unrelated trivia: Early in her career, Scher designed Boston’s eponymous debut album cover.)

In exchange for a $250 donation, you can have your name or message immortalized on a triangular metal tile installed in the lobby. Tile proceeds fund free admission for student groups.

In a testimonial booth, visitors can record their own histories—similar to NPR’s StoryCorps initiative.

Upper floor
Inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the upstairs galleries chronicle worldwide efforts since 1945. Visitors are greeted by a series of interactive glass panels. Touch a word such as Christian, Muslim, or LGBT, and a person representing that group appears to share his or her story.

The World Map of Freedom, maintained by international watchdog nonprofit Freedom House, rates the relative level of political rights and civil liberties in countries around the globe.

Light boxes with Platon portraits of human rights “champions,” suspended cones with mini-theaters, and interactive video tables address issues such as education, poverty, disability rights, and women’s rights.

A resource area provides ways to help you get involved—whether you want to become an activist or just learn to make informed consumer choices. Did you know that some cut flowers from Central America are picked by workers exposed to dangerous pesticides?

Rendering by Freelon + HOK

Take a look outside

The center’s curved exterior walls represent how the urban environment has cradled protests and collective action. But the seventy-foot-tall structures also look like cupped hands.

Two more phases are planned for the campus, to include an auditorium and a temporary gallery.

The roof of the LEED-certified building is planted with grass; the lawn is for temperature control and water recycling, not picnics.

A water sculpture was a late addition, suggested by Mayor Kasim Reed.

Platon’s portraits

Platon, the rock star New York photographer who’s famous enough to go by one name, is creating a thirty-six-foot mural and eight light-box portraits for the center.

Known for his collaborations with Human Rights Watch as well as his award-winning commercial work, Platon says visitors won’t see what he calls the pitiful “child with the fly on his nose” images. Guilt is an ineffective and temporary motivator, he says. Instead, Platon focuses on hope and courage—the dignity of those who resist repression. “It’s a celebration of people who stand up for change,” he says. “I never saw them as victims.”

Platon set up a studio in Egypt’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring. He traveled to Burma on the eve of the Saffron Revolution, and he photographed Aung San Suu Kyi days after her release from house arrest.

To keep Americans from being smug, Platon is now working on a project closer to home: images of immigrant families ripped apart by deportation.

“This is a historic time,” the photographer says. “It’s unprecedented how much people are holding leadership accountable.”