Blank Breaks Ground for National Civil Rights Center

Blank Breaks Ground for National Civil Rights Center

Arthur Blank’s $15 million dollar gift jumpstarts Center’s $50 million capital campaign.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s private papers will get an expanded exhibit in the new Arthur Blank building at the National Center.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s private papers will get an expanded exhibit in the new Arthur Blank building at the National Center.

Three members of Atlanta’s Jewish community played a major role in the recent groundbreaking for an expansion of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Centennial Olympic Park.

The ceremony, which took place on Oct. 14, was the culmination of an ambitious fundraising effort started three years ago when the president and CEO of the center, Jill Savitt, came to Atlanta from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. So far, the center has raised $27 million in a capital campaign with a goal of $50 million.

(From left) Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, National Center CEO Jill Savitt and Mayor Andre Dickens break ground for new Blank building on Oct. 14.

In her remarks, Savitt expressed her deep appreciation to Arthur Blank and the Arthur Blank Family Foundation, whose $15 million gift last year provided the impetus for construction to begin. One of the two buildings to be built will be named in his honor.

The groundbreaking comes just two weeks after Blank’s 80th birthday, which was celebrated by a week of philanthropic efforts in his name.

Although he did not attend the event at the center due to previous commitments, Blank recently said the birthday milestone was, for him, only a number.

“I believe getting older is a blessing, but I certainly do not focus on the number. I’m reminded of the opportunity that each one of us has every day, no matter how old we are, to live a life of purpose, and seeing that purpose transcend through surrounding communities gives me energy and optimism each day.”

Joining Blank and Savitt is A. J. Robinson. He is the center’s vice chairman and the third member of the community to play a key role in both the opening of the center and the success, thus far, of its capital campaign.

The expanded National Center for Civil and Human Rights is expected to open in June 2024.

Robinson, who has been an occasional editorial contributor to the Atlanta Jewish Times, is the president of Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District. In his remarks, he paid tribute to the remarkable political support the center has received over the years. He described former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who headed city government from 2002 to 2009 and has been the facility’s chairperson since its founding, the center’s “secret weapon.”

“She saw the great value of this project to be in Atlanta,” Robinson said, “allowing us to connect our unique history to our present day and future challenges. She made it her priority, while mayor, to honor civil rights icons, that are memorialized at the center, for generations to come. And she secured the purchase of Dr. King’s papers, which make this truly a sacred place.”

In 2006, Franklin, as mayor, secured $32 million to purchase a collection of 10,000 documents from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s estate that are now housed at Morehouse College. A selection of the documents, many of them handwritten by Dr. King, rotate as a part of the center’s public exhibits.

For the first time, the new National Center building will be able to offer programs in a dedicated space for children.

According to Savitt, the center’s chief executive, the Dr. King collection will receive more space and play a more prominent role in the new construction, which is expected to be open to the public in June 2024.

In a recent conversation, Savitt said that the new east wing, which will be named after Blank, will fill an important need. She believes it will help give children a greater appreciation of America’s struggle for civil and human liberty.

“The family center is going to be an incredibly creative, hands-on space that helps children understand how to be engaged citizens. And it’s going to be playful, joyous, and have arts and music and performance and all kinds of ways for us to talk to kids about fairness.”

Savitt said the new construction will provide space for a temporary gallery where traveling exhibits can be presented and a room for the center where they can present their own programs that respond to contemporary developments in the world. Right now, she noted, everything on exhibit is permanent, which doesn’t encourage visitors to return.

A final gallery in the new west wing will be about racial violence and its history in America. Although Blank was not able to attend the groundbreaking, Savitt credits Blank’s support over the years that has made this possible.

“He truly appreciates the unique, profound, transformational role that Atlanta has played in encouraging equality and respect for all people. And he has great reverence for the icons of the civil rights movement, John Lewis and beyond, and everybody who made Atlanta this brain trust that changed not only the country but changed the world.”

Also in attendance at the groundbreaking were Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens; two members of Georgia’s Congressional delegation; and representatives from Atlanta’s philanthropic community. The center’s capital campaign has the financial support of the Coca-Cola Foundation, UPS, Georgia Power, the Southern Company, Home Depot and Georgia-Pacific, among others.

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