In spite of the sweltering heat and steam-bath humidity, Andrew Young appeared comfortable and upbeat. The 80-year-old former U.N.Ambassador and Atlanta mayor joined other activists, business leaders and invited guests this week to celebrate a milestone - groundbreaking for phase one of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
Young, of course, was one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s most visible lieutenants in the 1950s and 60s during the epic struggle for non-violent social change. Young was with King on the balcony of that Memphis motel when the civil rights icon was shot. And he's seen the sacrifices of that era pay off big in his adopted hometown of Atlanta. "when I came here (in 1961) we were just a half-million people struggling for an identity," he told me. "Now It's pushing 6-million" in the metro area.
Young says The Center will tell how Atlanta's economic boom over the past four decades was closely linked with racial cooperation at crucial moments in its history.
"The development has been Black and White, rich and poor, young and old," Young recalls. "And it's been a demonstration of how you make free enterprise and democracy work for everybody."
The first building of the NCCHR complex will sit on a $12-million dollar prime parcel of land donated by the Coca-Cola Company. The site, expected to draw millions of tourists, is on the edge of Centennial Olympic park between The Georgia Aquarium and the New World of Coca-Cola. It'll house the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr., Collection and a broadcast studio, host special events and feature a retail store.
The groundbreaking is a victory for organizers who struggled during the recession to raise $65-million for phase one. The challenge now is to make the attraction somehow different from other civil rights centers around the country.
"It's going to be more than just a museum," Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told the crowd. " It's gonna be a building and an institution that is alive. It's gonna represent the present, the past and the future." The Center's CEO, Doug Shipman, agreed.
"The target audience is really those who didn't live through the American civil rights movement - those born after 1970," he explained. The Center "will try to convey to them the history in a way that appeals to them so that they are inspired to undertake civil and human rights action today."
Shipman says the NCCHR will accomplish that ambitious goal by using the tools that reach young people. "A lot of interactive technology. A lot of ways to integrate smart phones with storytelling that talks to folks who don't know the history."
And perhaps most importantly, planners say, the Center will put the American civil rights movement in a global context. "The U.S. struggle for civil and human rights is a template for movements we've seen recently in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria," which makes the Center even more relevant, Shipman says.
The Rev. Bernice King, the youngest child of Martin Luther King Jr. and current head of the King Center for Non-violent Social Change, said she hopes the NCCHR will inspire the city to live up to her father's legacy. "I hope this is not just another place to display stuff but one where real dialogue and systemic change can take place," she said. "We're going to be collaborating with them so that we can do our part to ensure that."
The National Center for Civil and Human Rights is scheduled to open Memorial Day 2014.