Atlanta Life and Culture

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Atlanta civil rights center celebrates 1st anniversary with ball players


Staff at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights celebrated the center’s first birthday last week with a cake shaped like an edible version of the downtown museum.

While they gobbled up the replica, with its green roof, and curved walls, the center’s leaders predicted that Atlanta’s appetite for the center’s message will only grow.

“We see the second year will be stronger than the first year,” said former CEO Doug Shipman.

The center will have some challenges, not the least of which is replacing Shipman, who left this month to become CEO of BrightHouse LLC. His interim replacement, Deborah J. Richardson, a former senior vice president at the center, said, “Doug leaves some big shoes to fill.”

On its anniversary day the center welcomed a barnstorming Philadelphia Little League team, the Anderson Monarchs, who visited the center as part of a 23-day tour of civil rights landmarks. The team is unique in two respects: most of the kids are African-American and their star player is female pitcher Mo’ne Davis, who earned a Little League World Series win last summer.

It was the sort of event that has become a regular occurrence at the center, which has distinguished itself as more than place for a history lesson. Richardson said the center demonstrates how the civil rights movement became a template for social change around the globe. That vantage point connects Atlanta’s civil rights heritage with the ongoing revolution that has paved the way, for example, for a 14-year-old Mo’ne Davis to pitch for a boys’ team.

Such an orientation is critical for the center’s future, she said, because to young people the civil rights era is a dusty artifact, while human rights issues are alive and breathing.

The center traveled a bumpy 13-year transit from idea to reality. It was stalled by the recession and construction was postponed more than once as architects drew up smaller designs to accommodate flagging fund-raising.

But its novel approach to telling its story prompted a “best of the year” award in the exhibitions category from Interior Design Magazine.

The center has done well with school groups, corporate events and family reunions. “We will end up with 250 events the first year, which is more than we expected,” Shipman said.

The center hoped to attract 400,000 visitors in its first year, but it has so far not released any attendance figures. Richardson said they would be tallied “in a few weeks.”

Among other events scheduled around the center’s birthday was a visit from Luvuyo Mandela, great-grandson of Nelson Mandela, who led a discussion about social entrepreneurship and Africa’s economies. There was also a impromptu celebration Friday of the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality.

In addition to touring the center and viewing an exhibit of the papers of Martin Luther King Jr., the team was treated to a visit from 1961 Freedom Rider and Selma voting rights activist Bernard LaFayette. LaFayette led Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s campaign in 1968 and is chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

LaFayette welcomed the ball players, and charged them with an important responsibility. “Take good notes,” he told them. “Many young people won’t have this opportunity, so be sure to share this with your friends and your classmates when you get back home… You have to be the model and example for others. That’s why you are here! That’s why you were born! You weren’t born just to eat up all this Chic-fil-A!”

Little League team learns about civil rights

Having your team led by a 14-year-old girl feels as natural as anything — especially when she’s got a 70 mile-an-hour fastball.

So say the teammates of Mo’ne Davis, the Philadelphia phenomenon who last summer became the first girl to pitch a shutout and nail a victory in a Little League World Series.

“We’ve been playing together since we were six years old, so we just take her as a member of the team,” says second baseman Jahli Hendricks, 14. “We always see people whisper when we walk out on to the field, but we laugh because we know she’s going to bring it.”

Hendricks and Davis and their team were visiting the National Center for Civil and Human Rights last week as part of a tour of civil rights landmarks in the Soutb. and seeing some baseball games along the way.

Named in honor of the Kansas City Monarchs, a durable Negro League team that boasted Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige on its roster, the Little Leaguers have studied deeply in civil rights history. “These kids are really prepared for this,” said coach Steve Bandura.

At the downtown museum they met Hawks center Mike Muscala, Angela Taylor, president of the WNBA Atlanta Dream, and Bernard Lafayette, chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

It was a quick stop. After a few hours the team left for a meet-and-greet with Atlanta legend Hank Aaron, then boarded their vintage, un-air-conditioned, 1947 bus to head to Alabama.

Jahli shrugged off the challenges of riding in an authentic but sweaty metal box in the Georgia summer: “You get used to it.”

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The AJC Features Team spotlights arts previews, reviews, profiles, news features and breaking news on Atlanta's cultural and life scene.