Boosting a Civil Rights Legacy

Karishma Mehrotra, Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2014

Civic leaders here long have attempted to draw visitors with the claim that Atlanta is the home of the civil-rights movement.

Yet a major historical site, encompassing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s house and crypt, has been plagued for years by organizational troubles, squabbles among King family members and wobbly attendance–even as civil-rights museums in smaller Southern cities have thrived.

Now Atlanta officials hope a $103 million museum set to open Monday, the Center for Civil and Human Rights, will reassert the city’s place in civil-rights history.

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But the futuristic, 43,000-square-foot museum will debut while competition for civil-rights tourism has been growing, raising questions about whether the Atlanta center can draw enough visitors. It will need 350,000 attendees a year to be self-sustaining, said the center’s chief executive, Doug Shipman.

In addition to civil-rights museums in Birmingham, Ala., Memphis, Tenn., and Greensboro, N.C., the Smithsonian Institution plans to open the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington in 2016, and the state of Mississippi plans to open the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson in 2017.

The new Atlanta center’s three galleries will include a rotating exhibit of Dr. King’s personal papers, a floor focusing on the South’s era of legal segregation and another on global human-rights issues. “We’re taking the civil rights legacy and bringing it to a whole new generation,” Mr. Shipman said.

The center, which will charge $15 admission for adults, is located near Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park close to a cluster of other attractions, including the Georgia Aquarium and the World of┬áCoca-Cola.

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The center spent about $68.5 million to build and launch the museum, and paid $11.5 million to the King family for the right to exhibit Dr. King’s papers. Atlanta businesses and civic leaders gave an additional $22.5 million to the family to allow the papers’ display.

The city of Atlanta, through its community development arm Invest Atlanta, provided about $40 million through a tax allocation district bond and other financing. Corporations, including Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co., Delta Air Lines Inc., United Parcel Service Inc. and Home Depot Inc., also gave large donations.

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The King family had planned to put Dr. King’s collection of 13,000 documents and artifacts up for auction in 2006. [Former Atlanta mayor Shirley] Franklin led an effort to stop the auction, collecting about $35 million from companies, the museum and others to purchase physical property rights to the material. Family members retained intellectual property rights, meaning they can charge fees for the right to reproduce the material.

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