Five years ago this summer, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (NCCHR) opened its doors in downtown Atlanta. It was conceived as an engaging and immersive space connecting the American civil rights movement with other human rights movements, including those of women and people identifying as LGBTQ. A decade in the making built on land donated by The Coca-Cola Company, the NCCHR was heralded as a coming-of-age moment for Atlanta.
Emory was involved from the start, with alumni playing key roles and a range of university administrators and faculty members supporting from the wings. Doug Shipman 95C served as the center’s founding CEO from 2007 through 2015. Credited with shepherding the project from idea to reality—he jokes that “ten weeks turned into ten years”—Shipman continues to serve on the NCCHR board and is currently the president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, as well as past president of the Emory Alumni Association.
“The center will explore not only Atlanta’s historical role in civil and human rights movements, but also host ongoing, ever-changing exhibitions, speakers, activities, and performances that anticipate future rights struggles . . . and even help shape their stories,” Shipman told Emory Magazine in 2009.
The NCCHR content committee, which shaped the visitor experience for the center, was led by Earl Lewis, the Emory provost at the time. “We wanted a sense of history, but we also wanted to conjure up a sense of materials changing, events changing.” said Lewis. “Even during moments with different perspectives and different emphases, no one lost sight of the fact that they wanted the center to get off the ground and benefit Atlanta.”
The center would become “a game changer in the history of Atlanta,” added A. J. Robinson 77B, who heads Central Atlanta Progress, part of the NCCHR Partnership. Robinson has long led efforts to further economic development, planning, public safety, transportation, high-profile events, and national promotion for downtown Atlanta—including the NCCHR. “Atlanta is the capital of the whole South,” Robinson said. “We’re moving from a city that’s a meeting place to a city that has something to say. No other place can lay claim to the title of the cradle of the civil rights movement, the cradle of human rights. Those are rooted in history right here. And creating this center makes Atlanta important in the future as a place to continue to bring these issues and discussions. It makes us relevant to the whole world.”
To highlight the fifth anniversary and the deep connections between the NCCHR and Emory, EmoryWire brought some of those key figures together for a conversation over dinner:
- Dr. Tjuan Dogan—Assistant Vice President, Social Impact Innovation, Emory
- Dr. Pellom M. McDaniels III 06G 07G—Curator, African American collection, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University. Exhibit co-curator, NCCHR
- Josh Newton—Senior Vice President for Advancement and Alumni Engagement, Emory. Board Member, NCCHR
- A. J. Robinson 77B—President, Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, President, Central Atlanta Progress; co-founder and longtime board member, NCCHR
- Jill Savitt—President and CEO, NCCHR
- Doug Shipman 95C—President and CEO, Woodruff Arts Center, founding CEO, NCCHR
- Brian O. Tolleson 94C—Founder, Lexicon Strategies and BARK BARK. Past interim CEO and longtime board member, NCCHR
Early Lessons and Connections
EmoryWire: So many people from Emory were, and continue to be, involved in the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and service is such a core part of Emory’s values. Do people who come to Emory already have activism and good works as a part of their character, or do they learn it at Emory?
Doug Shipman: I had a seminary course at Emory that actually led directly to the center, in Candler School of Theology. The class was on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as theologians. That course really catalyzed my desire to try to understand the religion of social activism. So, for me, Emory was more a catalyst.
Brian Tolleson: Emory helped me find my own voice, and in an authentic way. Once you embrace it, you advocate for your community. I was working in entertainment, and starting an LGBTQ network. Soon after, I would be fighting for the community that I was working in, but it was all because I was really trying to be my authentic self.
Pellom McDaniels: I came to Emory after ten years as a professional athlete. So, by the time I decided to pursue a PhD, I had one central question I was interested in after all those years of pursuing football: “What has been the impact of black athletes on 20th-century America?” That was the question I considered while sitting with Dr. Rudolph Byrd [the late Emory professor], an African American studies scholar whose contributions to the fields of civil rights, human rights, race, and social justice left a deep legacy. Rudolph connected me with Doug, who connected me directly to the center. That kind of synergy is throughout Emory.
Doug Shipman: Rudolph Byrd was a model of an activist: founding the James Weldon Johnson Institute, helping with acquiring the King papers, helping found the center, setting up dialogues. Mentoring you. Mentoring me. Emory has this very unique way of being able to blend the academic and the activism.
EmoryWire: A. J., what about you? Did you come to Emory because you were service-focused, or did you learn it on campus?
A. J. Robinson: Probably a little of both. We all worked very hard to get Emory to come into the city of Atlanta and to be part of the brand of Atlanta. As an alumnus of the 70s, that’s a huge thing. Emory was always seen as outside Atlanta, behind the ivy walls of academia. Now, we have unbelievable potential to grow the relationship with the university in a way we didn’t even think about in the very beginning.
Emory helped me find my own voice, and in an authentic way.
Josh Newton: When you think about the role that Emory has been able to play, what would you say are the highlights?
Doug Shipman: One of the unheralded ones is that some of the best interns—the scholars in service and the ethics center interns—have been young, very smart Emory students who would challenge our assumptions on what we should be doing and how we should be doing it.
Then, Rudolph Byrd helped start CNN Dialogues, a quarterly public event of CNN talent and academic Emory talent.
It was easy for us to claim civil rights, but claiming human rights was a big old stretch. But with Emory having the Carter Center, a very strong LGBTQ center, and the Center for Women—I’m not sure it would have happened without Emory. Emory allowed us to claim those issues. So, to be able to have the whole exhibition around human rights, all the programs that we do in the LGBTQ Institute, and the programs about human trafficking, that’s a huge thing.
Pellom McDaniels: Emory’s Institute for the Liberal Arts allowed these kinds of conversations to take place amongst the students and the faculty like Rudolph Byrd and then Dana White, an Emory educator for more than five decades and acclaimed Atlanta historian, especially emphasized Atlanta was a very special place to have these kinds of conversations, but you have to get outside the university to actually engage with the public that is part of the community.
Institutions and Individuals
EmoryWire: Pellom, that wraps us back to the past, present, and future. Doug, I was reading about your early visions for the center. And, Jill, you are tasked to put the “national” in the title of the center. Brian, you served as interim director before Jill arrived.
Doug Shipman: A. J., you should start, and former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin’s name has to be said in this. Nothing happens without Shirley Franklin. You and Shirley began, right?
A. J. Robinson: The idea was that we had not celebrated appropriately Atlanta’s history in civil rights. Atlanta had the King family and the King Center, but what woke up Shirley and myself was that the aging civil rights activists were not going to be with us forever. That really was the basis. We wanted to identify Atlanta with an asset that could preserve this history because their activism changed the world. My problem was, we didn’t really know how to do it.
Atlanta was the intelligence of the whole movement. We couldn’t just be about the civil rights, and from a business standpoint, we had to be about the future, not just about the past.
Josh Newton: I hear you saying that without Emory this wouldn’t have happened, without Emory people and faculty. Yet I also hear this disconnected time around Emory. What do you say about that disconnect and how we need to approach it differently?
Doug Shipman: It’s the difference between the institutional stance and what has been infused in the individual. What was infused in the individual is that the civil rights story is as important an American story as George Washington or the Civil War, but the civil rights story hadn’t been liberated to be for everybody. And, everybody who was around Emory believed that you could have deep and authentically African American history and still be this universal place.
A. J. Robinson: The institution always seems to be a little more conservative than the individual, and probably should be, but in this one we see no downside, even five years in.
Josh Newton: As we think about faculty appointments, future collection acquisitions, the current collection, I continue to say start with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference papers and go down the list. Why aren’t we more directly talking about how those are the types of things we’re doing in partnership with the community and the center, rather than over at Emory and by ourselves?
Tjuan Dogan: I’m in a brand-new role focusing on social impact, and one of the things that really attracted me to Emory is that it’s an institution saying, “We want to put a pin in social impact.” We just had John Lewis as our Oxford Commencement speaker, Andrew Young as our Emory Commencement speaker, and Stacey Abrams as our Class Day speaker. We want to move forward in a very specialized and designed way, especially with how we engage in the community and how we uplift those things really significant to Atlanta.
What woke up Shirley and myself was that the aging civil rights activists were not going to be with us forever.
Jill Savitt: I think, in the future of the center, that the “do” part of it has been the missing piece. We’ve been able to move people. It’s an immersive experience. There is a power of the experience and place. The King papers are part of that, and the human stories that we tell, but we’ve gone long on being an exhibition space.
We have real room to grow. One area for growth is education and how we bring what we do there outside our own walls. I happen to think college students are the heroes of our story. It’s always those young people who are at the forefront of change. And, I think they’re learning some really bad skills.
EmoryWire: How so?
Jill Savitt: Digital and social have made people lazy about what they can do and what actual advocacy is. Hashtags and marches are just one small part of a much larger puzzle in terms of actually succeeding and getting social justice. There is a lot of anger and hunger in those hashtags on social and in marches, but not a lot of strategy and logic.
We can intersect with that group in a meaningful way. We can take what we’re showing and exploring and talking about in the building, and actually put it in people, which it sounds like what Emory has done in a way, infused the people who are a part of it to go out in the world.
Doug Shipman: One of the things that Atlanta specifically was quite good at was political leadership, business ownership. Andrew Young once told me that that everybody knew how to negotiate in Atlanta. That Atlanta was the home of the civil rights movement because there were so many different elements. You can’t actually train activists without cross-disciplinary steps. So Emory’s cross-disciplinary approach is a real asset.
Jill Savitt: It’s the perfect tee up to this idea of effective advocacy. The center isn’t going to take positions on things, but we can be an advocate for advocacy and hook students up with groups that need help.
We would like to develop an academy of activism to teach people these skills. You have to learn that you can’t get anywhere without it being incremental. The big juicy vision, you should always have your eye on it, but to get there you need to break down.
A. J. Robinson: The biggest wall is historically that the Emory brand people relate to is through the medical facilities. If you’re not associated with the university as a student, all you see or hear about is medical. A second opportunity for us at Emory is maybe self-evident, but you have to be OUR institution. You guys have a unique opportunity with a broad-reaching platform. Keep open the door and we’ll run through it.
Atlanta and Emory
Jill Savitt: How national does Emory feel or aspire to be as an institution?
Pellom McDaniels: We should be a destination for anyone around the world to study civil and human rights.
Doug Shipman: Start to think about certain populations, the med school, public health, the law school, even the business school. Say “This year there’s going to be a special way for you to understand Atlanta. For you to understand Emory. You’re overseeing the legacy.”
Tjuan Dogan: It encourages advocacy for the long term. To look at things from a different lens. Then you get to see where do things meet and identify the impact opportunity.
Josh Newton: There are two primary obstacles that Emory never quite slayed. One is its relationship with Atlanta, and the other is its relationship with its alumni, and they are interrelated. There is a movement to change by leadership and allowing us to have these conversations.
We should be a destination for anyone around the world to study civil and human rights.
EmoryWire: We’ve talked a lot about civil rights, but another part of the center is human rights.
Jill Savitt: I’d love to send a group of prominent Atlantans to see the border crisis and the tent communities with kids under Mylar blankets. But also go to Lumpkin County and see the Stewart Detention Center where there’s family separation because ICE picks people up. And, go to Clarkston and look at the refugee community. We can curate that trip.
But you would need experts, and that’s how a university would help. Help develop the issues.
Pellom McDaniels: Once we have picked our issues, then what do we do with them? I like the idea of documenting and reporting but also the intent of educating and for public school students to take part.
EmoryWire: Jill, one of your charges is to put the “national” in the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. One of Josh’s charges is to make Emory much more of a national university. Can you both talk a little bit about your topline plans and if there are any thoughts on how to dovetail them?
Jill Savitt: We have to be part of national conversations. So, we know two issues will be immigration and voting turnout. If we want to be a national place, we’re going to have to try and participate in those conversations. Finding a way to get leadership from other parts of the country to be on our board will help us enormously fast.
Josh Newton: We’re actually hiring, for the first time, staff in our top five population cities whose job is to work for Emory. If they go see a business school alum and that person says, “My passion is safe water issues and I hear you have a great public health school focused on that,” that’s where we steer them. We could partner on opportunities with people who live in those cities.
Savoring Partnerships Past,
Present and Future
Brian Tolleson: Emory has such an interesting story right now at the national level. For a long time, and I say this because I grew up here, being from Atlanta was the last thing you told anybody—it was sort of an embarrassing secret. But we’re in such an interesting time where Atlanta is doing a lot right. It feels like a modern new city that is new America. That’s a part of both of your brands—that you are making the Atlanta part a standout. On the national stage for the first time, Atlanta’s story seems to be resonating and doing something right.
A. J. Robinson: I have been on a lifelong mission to be doing this and also to grow the city in lots of different ways. We are finally getting the thrill of making progress, and I’m thrilled beyond words. My favorite institution is finally getting some love and affection from what I believe to be the most important academic institution in the state of Georgia—just the global impact is tremendous.
Doug Shipman: It’s a unique moment. You have a new leader at the center. You have new leadership across Emory who are rethinking things at the most fundamental level. But you also have the deep well of support in history and connections. We’re not going anywhere, and our relationships are strong in both directions, but you should break the mold and think about the new model.
Atlanta is doing a lot right. It feels like a modern new city that is new America.
Jill Savitt: I have been thinking about what role should the center play in taking on big issues and being that kind of thought leader. We can do the things that we uniquely can do because of what we are, our ethos, and how we operate. So if we could have that partnership, there is space to make these offers that are so good for both of us.
Josh Newton: To take a conversation like this and to lift it up amongst our alumni community, in Atlanta and more broadly, to me, is putting our words into action. We aren’t just saying that we’re committed to this, we’re saying we are going to do this. And tell the story in a way that actually shows that we’re committed to moving forward.
Brian Tolleson: What A. J. and Shirley and Doug came up with is the most incredible thing that I think that Atlanta has ever made—in the sense of civil and human rights—it continues to evolve and grow and change. It takes King’s work and does what should have been done all along—which is to inspire a thousand other activists and a thousand other people. You were in that original vision, too, Jill. The four of you created something incredible that was an easy sell to anybody, showing why King is still alive every day. It was a visionary decision and a hard thing to do that was executed flawlessly. You did it right. So thank you.
Design by Davis Newell / Photos by Elizabeth Day