Center for Civil and Human Rights opens its doors

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ATLANTA - Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights opened on Monday.

The museum kicked off its opening ceremony at 10 a.m., before officially opening to the public at noon.

The ceremony started with song and speeches from Congressmen  Johnny Isasskson and John Lewis, who is prominently featured in the museum for his years for being one of the founders of the civil rights movement.  The 42,000 square-foot museum holds exhibits on the civil rights movement as well as the on-going struggle for human rights. Mayor Kasim Reed told Channel 2’s Dave Huddleston that it was one of the most important days in the life of the city. 

“I don't  think anyone can argue that Atlanta was the center of the civil rights movement in the United States of America, and it's so appropriate that our city says thank you to all those incredible heroes and heroes so this is our attempt  to do so and I think it's incredible attempt," Reed said.   

The museum showcases powerful stories from those who changed lives, and the course of history, through the civil rights movement.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, got emotional walking through the center, reliving the historical moments.

“We were trying to make a change. I don’t think we recognized or realized, I know I didn’t, that we were making history. We just wanted to make it possible for people to live with a sense of dignity,” Lewis said.

The 43,000-square-foot museum is interactive, and hopes to inspire those who visit to carry on the movement of freedom for all, by fighting for human rights.

The center also highlights human rights struggles from around the world.

The museum devotes separate galleries to modern human rights issues and the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, but also demonstrates how the struggles are related. Visitors learn through interactive exhibits and stories of real people.

Permanent exhibits include a timeline about the civil rights movement and King's personal papers, but the museum also has a changing series of displays about ongoing struggles worldwide. The museum sits at one end of Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, near attractions like the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca-Cola.

The museum was established in part to connect the movement's legacy to the present day, said CEO Doug Shipman, a sentiment shared by King's daughter Bernice.

"I think it's important that those of us who have knowledge of the civil rights movement, that we continue to connect the dots for the next generation, that we not only share the stories of history but try to relate some of what happened in the '50s and '60s to the now," said Bernice King.

One particularly emotional exhibit looks at the civil rights movement's lunch-counter protests, in which black students staged sit-ins, demanding to be served food alongside whites. When visitors don headphones and place their hands on a lunch counter, they hear increasingly intense taunts and threats endured by protesters.

Another exhibit showcases the 1963 March on Washington. Snippets of famous speeches made that day — like King's "I Have a Dream" speech — can be heard, but more engaging is a series of images projected in a space that mimics the Lincoln Memorial, where the march culminated. Photos and video clips show people preparing for the march, participants waving signs, civil rights leaders speaking and audience reaction.

"We're trying to produce the feeling, 'I wish I was there,'" Shipman said. Full audio of speeches and text panels about the march are also displayed.

Other highlights of the civil rights section include rotating exhibits of King's papers in an intimate room where "I Have a Dream" is projected on the wall in 25 different languages; mug shots of Freedom Riders shown on the exterior of a bus that doubles as a theater showing a film about the riders; and exhibits about those who died in the struggle as well as Atlanta's role in the movement.

While the civil rights sections look back at history, the human rights gallery has a more contemporary focus. Here visitors are invited to identify with particular human rights struggles using interactive mirrors, followed by a primer on human rights. Activists selected by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch are shown in nearly life-size photos representing immigrant rights and disability rights in the U.S.; women's rights in Iran; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Russia; and HIV/AIDS issues in China.

The museum is located at 100 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd., next to the Georgia Aquarium in Downtown Atlanta. Admission for adults is $15; students and seniors, $13; children 3-12, $10.