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Center for Civil and Human Rights opens June 23

6/20/2014, 6:05 a.m.
Visitors to the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta watch a panoramic view of the 1963 March on Washington. Photo by Ken Watts

The long anticipated National Center for Civil and Human Rights opens its doors on June 23 with interactive exhibits designed to lure thousands of visitors to Atlanta, the “cradle of the civil rights movement.”

The privately funded museum, built at a cost of $75 million, rounds out the offerings of downtown Atlanta’s tourist district.

It is neighbor to the World of Coke and the Georgia Aquarium on Pemberton Place and is within walking distance of Centennial Olympic Park and CNN Center.

Chief Operating Officer Doug Shipman said the 42,000-square-foot museum immerses visitors in the U.S. fight for racial equality and other human rights movements in America and around the world.

The distinctive curved structure with its green moss roof houses hundreds of photographs, period tapes, and artifacts that illustrate the fight for rights from the 1950s to the present.

Civil rights icons John Lewis and Andrew Young previewed it recently, as did other select local guests and random tourists who wandered to its doors.

Shipman said the exhibits capture both the subject matter and the feel of the civil rights movement.

“It brings the stories to people who don’t know them,” he said.

As visitors enter the expansive atrium, they are greeted by a colorful multi-language mural expressing themes of justice, freedom and solidarity. To the left of the mural is the entrance to the first gallery, Rolls Down Like Water: The American Civil Rights Movement. The self-guided tour featuring archive sound and video uses multimedia and interactive technology to give visitors an “immersive experience” of the black freedom struggle of the 1950s and ’60s, from the Atlanta perspective.

As he sat at a segregated lunch counter and walked by “whites only” signs, Lewis wept.

“I know it happened but sometimes it’s hard to believe that people were so vicious, so mean,” he told WSB-TV.

The civil rights gallery is curated by Tony Award-winning playwright and director George C. Wolfe, who is best-known for directing “Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk,” “Angels in America – Millennium Approaches” and the play “The Colored Museum.”

It begins with a compact anteroom papered with everyday scenes from the pre-civil rights era. On the right, in neon script, is the word “Colored” over photos of nightlife on Auburn Avenue, the Black Crackers baseball team and church services. On the left under “White” are similar scenes – featuring bobby-soxers and college football.

Those scenes are followed by a wall emblazoned with Jim Crow laws banning interracial marriage and requiring separate restrooms for white and black customers of public facilities.

Visitors then pass through “portals” that depict defining moments of the movement such as the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case.

Another portal with sound and archive film immerses the viewer in the middle of the 1963 Birmingham demonstration when police dogs attacked protesters. When triggered by motion sensors, a life-size re-creation of a Freedom Rider bus, covered with portraits of actual Freedom Riders, morphs into a screen showing a documentary about brave volunteers who desegregated interstate transit in the early 1960s.