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I first met Doug Shipman, chief executive officer of the soon-to-open National Center for Civil and Human Rights in 2007, while researching an article for the Los Angeles Times. He was filled with passion for this project—and now, as the project’s long and sometimes rocky journey comes close to its milestone, he still is.
Shipman was invited by James McKissic and Chattanooga’s Office of Multicultural Affairs to speak at a recent luncheon at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. Some attendees were likely already familiar with the basic facts about this major regional institution: The National Center for Civil and Human Rights is a 42,000-square-foot facility in the heart of downtown Atlanta, located at Pemberton Place, adjacent to Centennial Olympic Park, The New World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium. Its mission is to be a “world-class cultural institution dedicated to exploring stories of civil and human rights.”
Land for the Center was donated by Coca Cola, and as Shipman told the crowd, that caused community controversy. Many felt it should be located on Auburn Avenue, site of the MLK Center, helping to revitalize the neighborhood and acknowledging the significance of the area’s connection to the civil rights movement.
But Center officials continued to meet with city residents, listened to their concerns, and in the end, most were reconciled to the idea that the site selected would allow more visitors from around the world more access. A streetcar will run from the Center to Auburn Avenue, and, eventually, to the Carter Center, linking three major Atlanta institutions involved in civil and human rights work.
Shipman noted that within the past couple of years, several 50-year anniversaries of important American civil rights events have occurred. The generation who participated in and remembers this time is aging, and in many cases, already gone. “Only 25 percent of Americans are old enough to remember the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” he said. Part of the Center’s work will be to ensure that these events are not forgotten—but as Shipman emphasized, the Center will not be a museum, but rather a living, changing place. The human rights aspect of the institution’s mission will be just as important as the civil rights aspect, including making sure that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its 30 articles continue to be put forward as a world standard.
The first article in the Declaration reads: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
When have we needed to remember that more urgently, even here in our own country? When the Center opens on June 23, it will be a regional treasure, and we in Chattanooga are very fortunate to live only a short drive away. Family field trip, anyone?