John Lewis came to Atlanta five decades ago as a founding leader of SNCC—the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—and with an already impressive resume as an activist.
As its name suggests, the Center for Civil and Human Rights, which opens to the public on Monday, is about two struggles—the American one that was fought primarily in the South in the latter half of the twentieth century, and the worldwide one that involves oppressed peoples in distant (and not-so-distant) lands. While there’s an obvious thematic linkage between the American Civil Rights Movement and the broader human rights one, the line between them must have been a challenge for the Center’s designers to straddle. One has a built-in narrative, with a beginning and middle (if not yet an ending), and the other requires navigating the vast space beneath the human rights umbrella, whether it’s oppressed women in Africa, child laborers in Pakistan, or tortured activists in Burma.
Well, one thing you conclude watching the PR extravaganza that is "Atlanta: A Visual Postcard," is that everyone had really long attention spans back in the day. Who'd sit through fifteen minutes of chamber of commerce fluff today? Yeah, I thought so.
When it comes to building stuff, Atlanta’s got a great history of public-private partnership. Civic leaders come up with an idea, City Hall irons out the political wrinkles, and then Coke, Delta, the Home Depot, and other hometown companies contribute funding. It’s how Atlanta won the Braves and the Olympics. On the other hand, our track record of taking care of people in the process of building things—large venues in particular—is lousy.
The Negro Building was the first designated space, since Emancipation, for the showcase of African-American achievement in a white-dominated setting. Without it, the Exposition committee could have not received federal backing, and those funds appropriated from Congress, are what helped make the fair an international success.