Coke's gift not the real thing

Museum site puts Civil Rights at the back of bus

If at first you are impressed with Coke's philanthropy — the soft-drink company has, after all, offered to donate an $8 million plot for Atlanta's Civil Rights museum — you may become a bit disheartened after considering the proposal's details.

First, Coke donated the largest portion of the block to the Georgia Aquarium. Then, it guzzled 5.5 acres for its new World of Coca-Cola. Now, the Civil Rights museum is being offered the remaining 2.5 acres.

If size doesn't matter, the site's unfortunate characteristics surely do. The leftover acreage turns out to be at the back door of the aquarium and the World of Coke — at the foot of a hill, a block from the 75/85 off-ramp. It's not the least bit visible from Centennial Park, which is very strange since proximity to the park was the primary selling point touted by those who support the site, including the mayor herself.

The AJC's front-page announcement glorified the gift. The paper also ran a historical piece on Coke's philanthropy. Maybe the daily can't bring itself to criticize a hometown company. But in the wake of all the favorable publicity, it's important to step back and ask a big question: Is that site the best place for Atlanta's long-awaited Civil Rights museum?

A museum's placement is bound to be the most significant factor in its design, so why should the Civil Rights museum be coerced into a problematic site before its goals are even set? (The mayor says her commission won't even adopt a mission statement until next spring, at the earliest.)

And if the site is chosen to suit a particular corporation, will other decisions — the building's design or even the exhibits themselves — also serve other agendas?

Statements from Coca-Cola regarding the "synergy" of a rights museum next to the World of Coke are telling. It's no secret that after failing to draw crowds at its current location near Underground, the soda-pop emporium is eager to surround itself this time with high-powered attractions. Thus the "generous" land gift to the aquarium and now the Civil Rights museum.

Of course, the World of Coca-Cola is pure fizz and fluff, with loads of Coke paraphernalia, just a hint of history and not a word about anything potentially embarrassing to the company. You walk out feeling like you've paid good money to experience a 90-minute commercial. Believing that celebrating a brand is as important as celebrating Civil Rights would be like believing that a soft drink might "teach the world to sing/in perfect harmony."

If you think I'm too cynical, how about a simple test? Let Atlanta accept the land gift from Coke. Then, allow the city to sell the land and to use the money to support the construction of a rights museum wherever the commission decides it's best suited. There may be more appropriate locations: How about where Auburn Avenue crosses the northern end of Woodruff Park? Or what about any of the many parking lots dotting downtown?

If Coke's spirit is truly philanthropic, then the company should be fine with the arrangement. If the company objects, then the Civil Rights museum is being used, and its independence is being compromised before it even gets out of the planning stages.

The bottom line is how important our city's legacy of Civil Rights is to Atlanta and its leaders. If civil rights are a side issue to Atlanta's economic progress, then fine, let the museum — and its priceless MLK archives — serve to lend clout to our corporations.

But if we think the museum might serve instead as a symbol of social progress, or an inspiration to create a better world, or even as a place to contemplate and confront mankind's potential for evil, then we ought to look for a more fitting location than the backyard of the city's latest "attractions."

Timothy Harrison is an Atlanta architect.