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Civil rights museum idea gets initial look

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On the heels of the opening of the Georgia Aquarium, momentum is building to open another major tourist attraction in Atlanta --- a civil rights museum.

About 150 top Atlanta decision-makers attended an invitation-only meeting this month to discuss the possibility of building the museum in Atlanta.

Mayor Shirley Franklin organized the Dec. 6 meeting with former Mayor Andrew Young. She said it was an exploratory meeting to gauge public enthusiasm for a civil rights museum.

"We were really just trying to get a sense of whether this was something people would be interested in," she said. "And there was a lot of interest."

Franklin said she started thinking about such a museum two years ago when Evelyn Lowery, the wife of civil rights leader Joe Lowery, suggested it to her.

It's unclear how much such a museum would cost, or who would pay for it.

"It would be a fairly substantial project, and I think the movers and shakers are trying to capitalize on the initiative of the High and the Georgia Aquarium," said Cliff Kuhn, a professor of history at Georgia State University, referring to the recent openings of both the expanded High Museum and the new aquarium --- across from Centennial Olympic Park.

Franklin said other cities in the South and the North have civil rights museums that cost tens of millions of dollars. She said downtown boosters such as the Atlanta Development Authority and Central Atlanta Progress are interested, and she said at least one Georgia economic development official attended the meeting, suggesting the state might support such a project.

As for who would lead the effort, she said Young was "very interested."

He served as co-chairman of the fund-raising campaign for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, telling The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year that he'd wanted to do the same work for Atlanta, but Atlanta wasn't "ready."

Said Franklin, "Most of us would look to Andy to be the chair."

At the meeting, Auburn Avenue emerged as an early favorite for the site of such a museum. Auburn Avenue, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was born and lived and where John Wesley Dobbs was dubbed "the mayor," is Atlanta's best known African-American street.

More than 600,000 people visit the street annually to visit the King Historic District. Two other locations also were mentioned --- Five Points, and to capitalize on the popularity of the Georgia Aquarium, the north end of Centennial Olympic Park.

Not everyone was sold on Auburn Avenue. Frank Catroppa, the retiring superintendent of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, said Auburn Avenue doesn't have a big enough land "footprint" to place a museum the size and magnitude that is being discussed.

"I think it would be better at Centennial Olympic Park," Catroppa said.

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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