George brings to life the story of the US civil rights movement

“This is a lovely find,” says George Wolfe as he stands in one of the galleries at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, an $80 million museum that opened this summer in Atlanta.

Mr. Wolfe is a top Broadway playwright, director, and producer, as well as a member of President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. As chief creative officer of the new museum, he has melded the sophisticated lighting, scenery, sound, and video of a major theatrical production with the haunting, uplifting story of the civil rights movement.

Wolfe spent six years designing and bringing to life the wrenching process of securing equal rights for African-Americans through protests, marches, and court battles. He pauses at a kiosk where a short film explains his “lovely find”: In late 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., born in Atlanta and living there when he won the Nobel Peace Prize that year at age 35, received tributes and praise when he traveled to Oslo to make his acceptance speech.

The city of Atlanta, though, struggled with recognizing King. A number of white businessmen declined to buy tickets to a downtown banquet planned for January 1965 to honor the civil rights leader. Coca-Cola executives J. Paul Austin and Robert Woodruff, along with Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. and several others, met with the city’s business elite to discuss the damage that would result from a tepid turnout for King’s Nobel homecoming.

“It is embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner,” Austin told the group. “The Coca-Cola Company does not need Atlanta. You all need to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Company.”

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