Boosting a Civil Rights Legacy

By Dow Jones Business News, 
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By Karishma Mehrotra

ATLANTA--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.

"It's very much viewed as filling a gap," said Shirley Franklin, a former Atlanta mayor who heads the center's board. Atlanta "is legendary for leadership during a tumultuous time."

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'sCentennial Olympic Park close to a cluster of other attractions, including the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola.

"People say to go to Birmingham or Memphis," said Atlanta resident Eileen Suggs, 40. "It's nice to have something here locally."

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.

Clayborne Carson, director of the King Institute at Stanford University, said Atlanta is the logical place for such a museum because of the city's importance to Dr. King. "It's probably the most significant museum that I know of that tries to look at human rights and social justice from a global perspective," said Mr. Carson. "And I think King would have appreciated that."

But Pulitzer Prize-winning civil-rights historian David Garrow cautioned against overemphasizing Atlanta's importance.

"A truly 'national' museum would devote more attention to the black freedom struggle in the crucible states of Alabama and Mississippi than to Atlanta," Mr. Garrow wrote in an email.

Dr. King was born and raised in Atlanta. By the late 1950s, he and others used Atlanta as a base for many anti- segregation campaigns.

In the 1960s, Dr. King served as co-pastor of Atlanta'sEbenezer Baptist Church until he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. He is buried across the street from Ebenezer in a national historic site in Atlanta's Sweet Auburn neighborhood, a once-thriving center of the city's black community.

Since his death, Dr. King's survivors have been consumed with legal battles with others and among themselves over claims of ownership and copyright to King material. Last summer, the family estate, led by two of Dr. King's sons, Martin Luther III and Dexter, filed suit against a nonprofit headed by their sister, Bernice, over the use of Dr. King's intellectual property. An attorney for the King estate didn't return calls for comment.

Meanwhile, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site has seen a drop in visitors, from a high of about 3.3 million in 1992 to 704,000 in 2013.

Organizers of the new center--located about a mile northwest of Sweet Auburn in a tourist-heavy area--have distanced themselves from King family squabbles and legal issues. None of the Kings have been involved in the center's creation, Mr. Shipman said. Ms. Franklin and other Atlanta leaders developed the idea for a center honoring the city's civil-rights legacy in the early 2000s.

The King family had planned to put Dr. King's collection of 13,000 documents and artifacts up for auction in 2006. Ms. 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.

Material not on display at the center will be stored at Morehouse College, the historically black university in Atlanta that was Dr. King's alma mater.

Cameron McWhirter contributed to this article.

Write to Karishma Mehrotra at Karishma.Mehrotra@wsj.com

Subscribe to WSJ: http://online.wsj.com?mod=djnwires


  (END) Dow Jones Newswires
  06-18-141918ET
  Copyright (c) 2014 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.


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