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'It's Long Overdue': New Civil Rights Museum Opens in Atlanta

Image: A new civil rights museum officially opened to the public on June 23 in Atlanta, Ga.

A new civil rights museum officially opened to the public on June 23 in Atlanta, Ga. Leo Juarez / NBC News

ATLANTA — After years of anticipation, a new museum dedicated to the history of the civil rights movement officially opened to the public Monday in the city that Martin Luther King Jr. called home.

"This movement transformed the most powerful nation on Earth," Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said at the opening ceremony.

The 42,000 square-foot facility devotes separate sections to the civil rights movement and King’s personal papers, including hundreds of his own handwritten notes and 1,100 books from his personal library.

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But unlike other museums about the movement that fought for racial equality in America, the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights also includes tributes to other battles: from women’s rights to the struggles of persons with disabilities to gay, lesbian and transgender issues.

The facility aims to link the civil rights movement with ongoing struggles for human rights around the world.

Doug Shipman, the center’s CEO, said some of the issues the museum will focus on — like immigration — remain controversial.

'We want to have tough conversations but in a civil way,” Shipman said, adding that the museum itself is nonpartisan.

Image: A new civil rights museum officially opened to the public on June 23 in Atlanta, Ga.
The new civil rights museum officially opened to the public on June 23 in Atlanta, Ga. Leo Juarez / NBC News

The entrance to the civil rights exhibition, created by Broadway director George C. Wolfe, is a tunnel depicting life in the "Jim Crow era" — when local and state laws enforced racism and segregation from the end of the Civil War to the mid 1960s.

Visitors then pass through a brightly lit portal chronicling "Brown v. Broad of Education," the landmark Supreme Court case in 1954 that declared "separate but equal" unconstitutional. Next, a March on Washington exhibit features a thirty-foot-wide video display.

One of the most powerful installations depicts the lunch-counter protests of the civil rights movement. Black students staged sit-ins and demanded to be served food alongside whites. In the museum, visitors can put on headphones as they place their hands on the counter and hear the taunts protesters had to face.

"We've really brought the storytelling to a whole new generation," Shipman said.

Image: A new civil rights museum officially opened to the public on June 23 in Atlanta, Ga.
The lunch counter exhibit at new civil rights museum in Atlanta, Ga. Leo Juarez / NBC News

Glenda Gaither-Davis, 72, was one of the Freedom Riders in the early ‘60s who was arrested in Jackson, Miss., while fighting for civil rights.

She was only 18 years old back then.

"I was young," she said, as she looked at her mug shot, which displayed on one of the museum’s exhibits. "I was energetic. I was interested in making this a better world."

She now lives in Atlanta – and is proud that the center was built here.

"It's long overdue," she said. "We need to be more cognizant of making sure that the younger generations understand history."

Image: A new civil rights museum officially opened to the public on June 23, 2014 in Atlanta, Ga.
Mugshots of Freedom Riders at the new civil rights museum in Atlanta, Ga. Leo Juarez / NBC News

The noticeably brightly-lit upper floor examines present-day battles for human rights.The eye-catching World Map of Freedom is maintained by the international watchdog group Freedom House and rates the level of civil liberties in countries around the world.

Mark Johnson is a long-time disability rights advocate. He suffered a spinal cord injury while diving and has been mostly paralyzed from the neck down.

When he first saw the museum, he said he had two emotions.

"One was a sense of pride,” Johnson said. "The other was sadness because (this gallery) is where you get reminded of how much still needs to be done."