Center for Civil and Human Rights opens with strong Emory ties

By Laura Douglas-Brown | Emory Report | June 23, 2014

Story image

The new Center for Civil and Human Rights celebrates its grand opening June 23. Photo by Albert Vecerka/Esto.

As senior class orator, Doug Shipman challenged the Emory College Class of 1995 "to honestly assess our society and use our education to rectify its injustices."

"Commit yourself to do more than live; challenge yourself to improve, to affect, to impact our world," Shipman told fellow graduates that hot May morning.

Almost 20 years later, Shipman  delivers that challenge on a much larger scale as he welcomes attendees to the official grand opening of the Center for Civil and Human Rights.

The 43,000-square foot facility, open June 23, is the newest landmark on Pemberton Place at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, positioned to offer visitors to the neighboring World of Coca-Cola and Georgia Aquarium a more introspective experience designed to inspire them to make a personal commitment to human rights.

Shipman, who majored in economics and political science at Emory, became involved in the project first as an employee of Boston Consulting Group, which was asked in 2005 by then-Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin to help determine if the concept of the Center — first sparked by civil rights icons Evelyn Lowery and former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young — could be viable.

After serving on the working group that recommended a Center that would "recognize and tell the stories of the universal search for a secure human existence," Shipman became the Center's first and only CEO, shepherding the project from vision to reality.

 "In a lot of ways, without Emory, I would not have been here to do this," says Shipman, who is also the incoming president of the Emory Alumni Board.

Looking back on his Emory coursework, Shipman cites classes exploring issues of race, gender and poverty, and credits a course about the theologies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X taught by Robert Franklin — then a professor at Candler School of Theology and soon to be installed Laney Professor in Moral Leadership at the school —with "really crystalizing my deep interest in religion and social movements."

Shipman continued his education with a master's degree in theology and public policy from Harvard Divinity School and a master's in public policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

"It gave me the academic grounding to answer the call from Shirley Franklin," he says. "When she asked if I knew anything about civil rights movements and museums, I could say I didn't know museums, but I did know civil rights movements."

The relationships Shipman formed at Emory were as important as his classes. Growing up white in Bull Shoals, Arkansas, he had few opportunities to forge friendships with those different from him. But at Emory, he reached out to learn and build connections across lines of race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation.

"To come from a small town in Arkansas with no diversity and become immersed in those conversations — those are exactly the conversations we had developing the Center and the conversations we hope people have visiting the Center," Shipman says.

More than a museum

Earl Lewis, Emory provost from 2004-2012, was also deeply involved in the early discussions that shaped the Center. Lewis served on the working group that explored the feasibility of creating the facility, along with Shipman and other Emory alumni including A.J. Robinson 77B, president of Central Atlanta Progress (CAP), and Ellen Mendelsohn 01C, who was a senior project manager for CAP at the time.

Lewis then chaired the Content Committee that charged the Center to be much more than a museum.

"The Content Committee affirmed the importance of linking human and civil rights as a part of a connected narrative about the development of social movements to ensure humanity, justice and dignity in the United States and elsewhere," recalls Lewis, who left Emory to serve as president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.   

"The Content Committee also asserted that this must be a center that links the past, present and future," he says. "As such, it could and should not function solely as a museum but rather a true center where prospective work was paired with past achievements."

Emory alumna Alicia Philipp 75C, president of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, helped secure King's papers for the city in 2006, and hopes their display at the Center have a similar impact.

After learning the papers were to be auctioned at Sotheby's, Mayor Franklin and the Community Foundation had just days to create an entity and secure funding to buy the papers. The collection is now housed at Morehouse College, King's alma mater.

"There is the important role that Morehouse plays in making the papers available for research purposes, but always there was the desire that there would be a place the public would be able to see them on a rotating basis," says Philipp, who is a winner of the Emory Medal, the University's highest award for alumni.

Having a place for public display of King's papers was a "catalyst" for the Center's broader mission, to "make human rights really come alive" for visitors, she says.

"People will begin to realize that this is not just something that happened that we look back on, but something that is happening now and we need to look forward," Philipp says. "We need to learn from these lessons and use them today."

Content and collaboration

The King papers will be housed in a special gallery on the first floor of the Center, featuring a reverent, chapel-like design. It is the only gallery at the Center focused on displaying artifacts.

The Center's two larger galleries — "Rolls Down Like Water: The American Civil Rights Movement" and "Spark of Conviction: The Global Human Rights Movement" — use imagery and interactive technology to allow visitors to experience the dark days of segregation, the triumph of the 1963 March on Washington and the tragedy of King's assassination, and then connect those lessons to past, present and future struggles for human rights around the world.

Several items from Emory's Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (MARBL) will join the King papers on display in the Center, including an audio recording of "I'm Somebody: A Praise Poem for the Negro Race," by William Holmes Borders, given at Wheat Street Baptist Church, 1965; images from the Jacob M. Rothschild papers; and a loaned original of Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral program from MARBL's Southern Christian Leadership Conference archive.

Courtney Chartier, head of research services for MARBL, came to Emory after working as an archivist at the Atlanta University Center, home to the full Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection.

As the King archivist, she collaborated on the first exhibit of the King papers to be shown at the Center — which includes the program from MARBL — and continues to work for the Center on a freelance basis.

"Atlanta's archival institutions are rich in the documentation of civil rights, from Auburn Avenue Research Library and the Atlanta History Center, to AUC, Georgia State and here at Emory," Chartier says. "My hope is that the [Center] will be a space where we can collaborate to bring our resources together, physically and intellectually."

That collaboration can help strengthen the Center and all of the institutions in Atlanta striving to preserve the history of social justice movements, according to Randall Burkett, curator of African American Collections at MARBL.  

"MARBL has distinctive collections related to civil and humans rights, and we are excited to be able to share these, as will our sister institutions in the Atlanta area, through exhibitions and programs to be developed at the Center," he says.

"Taken together, archives across the city and the region house extraordinary resources for this vitally important field of study, and the Center will provide greater visibility for us all.  We look forward to future collaborating with them."

Partnerships for progress

Just as the Center strives to be more than a museum, its partnerships with Emory extend beyond historical content into conversations aimed at securing human rights in the future.

Years before its official opening, the Center began hosting programming with a variety of community institutions, including Emory's James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference and The Carter Center.

The popular, ongoing "CNN Dialogues" series — hosted by the Center, the Institute and CNN — brings together experts and large audiences to discuss a variety of human rights issues.

"Those programs gave us stature and allowed us to reach new audiences and have a presence in the city before we had a physical presence," Shipman says. "It gave us credibility that we can do big things."

Interns from Emory's Center for Ethics have worked on the Center for Civil and Human Rights, and Paul Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics, foresees the two organizations' "many areas of overlap" leading to further partnerships in the future.

"We have talked about doing conferences and programs together — [The Center for Civil and Human Rights] drawing from the Center for Ethics for expertise and resources, and finding ways that the two organizations can champion human rights in business, medicine, public health, and other areas together," Wolpe says.

The same is true of The Carter Center, an affiliate of Emory governed by a board of trustees that includes six Emory trustees and Emory President James Wagner.

"Now is really a moment to focus more on the future and the natural complementarity of having a Center that is dedicated to what we hope and expect Jimmy Carter will be remembered for in 200 years, which is human rights and peace," says John Stremlau, vice president for peace programs at The Carter Center.

The two organizations have a "natural synergy," Stremlau says, as The Carter Center works to advance democracy around the world while also acknowledging that the United States is still working to live up to the vision of democracy outlined in our own founding documents.

Atlanta has been dubbed "the city too busy to hate," but "we're not too busy to remember, or at least we shouldn't be," Stremlau says. "Kids should not forget what happened 50 years ago.

"The Carter Center has needed to have a center in this town that complements and encourages an appreciation of America's persistent democratic deficits before we go out and lecture the rest of the world on democracy," he notes.

That is exactly the kind of role the Center was created to play, Shipman says.

"At the end of the day we have always seen ourselves at the Center as a public institution — we talk to the public," Shipman says. "But we enable scholars, academics and activists to have access to the public. Emory has expertise we won't have, but we can provide a platform for people and institutions at Emory to speak from."

Shaping the future

With its doors now opening to the general public, the Center is poised to become a focal point for conversations about human rights — from the activists and academics who will use it as a venue to present their work, to families who will visit then discuss their experiences over the dinner table.

"The Center will solidify Atlanta's place as the center for the conversations on these issues in the country," Wolpe says.  "It will have a ripple effect that will enrich the programs of other institutions like Emory and related centers like mine."

Though Lewis is now in New York with the Mellon Foundation, he looks forward to visiting the Center and seeing it "ignite a deep and continuing examination" of how people can "change their world for the better."

"If successful, visitors will leave the Center with more questions than when they entered and come back to pursue possible answers," Lewis says. "Ideally they will gain a fuller sense of the fragility of our democracy and the work that has been required to extend its benefits to all, irrespective of age, gender, race, sexual orientation, place of birth, religious beliefs or national origins."

After nine years of working to make the dream of the Center a reality, Shipman says it has been "incredibly moving" to see the reactions of early visitors who toured the Center in preparation for its official opening.

"That is why we took this journey," he says, "to create a place where people would find themselves in these stories."