In Atlanta, a split over the plan for civil rights museum

Atlanta wrestles with finding the proper location and presentation for the museum.

Atlanta's plan to build a civil rights museum is stirring debate about which venue would best tell the story of that turbulent and inspiring time: downtown, among sleek corporate buildings and cultural institutions, or Martin Luther King Jr.'s old stomping grounds on Auburn Avenue, known as "black Main Street," with its housing projects and fried fish joints.

A decision about where to put a civil rights museum is likely to inform how the story about the civil rights movement is told – and is as important as the papers and artifacts that the building will house, say experts.

For some, the museum should focus on how the movement of the 1950s and '60s succeeded in transforming a segregated society into a publicly integrated one. Others want the new museum to emphasize that race relations are a continuing struggle – and they note that the poverty and social segregation evident along Auburn Avenue are proof that Dr. King's dream is only half-fulfilled.

"It's going to be a tough discussion, especially when you ask the question: Why not spend tens of millions of dollars to build upon the living museum that Auburn Avenue still is, where you can see the barbershop where King got his hair cut?" says Claybourne Carson, director of the King Research and Education Institute at Stanford University in California.

This summer, Atlanta borrowed from SunTrust bank to buy 7,000 pages of King's personal papers for $32 million. They include everything from divinity student marginalia to handwritten notes for his "I have a dream" speech.

The debate has surged anew in the three weeks since Coca-Cola Co. offered the city a piece of land next to its new and expanded World of Coca-Cola museum, located a few miles from the site on Auburn Avenue. That offer accelerated a leisurely, 20-year effort to build the museum. "Six months ago, we didn't have content, and we didn't have a site, and now we have both," says museum committee member A.J. Robinson.

The city's size and its number of tourists mean that the Atlanta Civil Rights Museum is likely to become the nation's largest and busiest. Indeed, King's legacy is very much alive. Presidents Bush and Clinton were on hand for the groundbreaking of a $100 million National King Memorial on the Mall in Washington Monday, the first memorial for a nonpresident.

In Atlanta, Mayor Shirley Franklin says the challenge is to differentiate the city's civil rights presentation from some 100 other African- American collections and three major civil rights museums in Birmingham, Ala.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Cincinnati – in addition to the Smithsonian Institution's planned African-American History Museum in Washington, scheduled to open in 2016.

"Other cities like Memphis and Chicago have told the civil rights story and that of Dr. King in relation to their cities," she says. "We now finally have a chance to tell the Atlanta story."

The museum committee will present a proposal to the mayor about the museum's location and contents by the end of the year. There is concern that building the facility downtown may draw people away from the King memorial on Auburn Avenue, says Mr. Carson. Though no parcels have been identified, two of King's children have said they believe the museum should be on Auburn Avenue, near King's mausoleum.

Others say the high number of black panhandlers along the Avenue would deter some from coming. "We haven't come so far that a lot of white folks are going to feel comfortable going down to Auburn Avenue, and that's very sad," says Randall Burkett, curator of Emory University's African-American collection.

Meanwhile, the committee is figuring out how to present the museum's contents. Mr. Robinson says the proposal will likely try to push beyond the '60s period of racial segregation.

One way to thread the past with the present is by tracing the racial history of one specific area and its people up through today, as was done with a rural Georgia county in the book "Praying for Sheetrock, says Brian Landsberg, author of "Enforcing Civil Rights: Race Discrimination and the Department of Justice."

Yet many Americans today see the civil rights struggles as disembodied from their own lives, says Mr. Landsberg. "The attitude now is that the race issue is solved, the civil rights revolution is over. But if one actually takes a close look at one place and kind of moves forward through time, one can see that's not really true."

King Center visitor Denise Merrell from Jacksonville, Fla., agrees that "history can be hard to handle." But she says an Atlanta Civil Rights Museum would be most effective if it shows both differences and similarities "in what things were like back then and what things are like now."

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