After 50 years, a proper tribute

by Brian Clarey

After 50 years, a proper tribute

The blanket of whiteness draped over the city on Saturday has by Monday morning turned to jagged ice on the roads that lead downtown. And on this Monday morning in Greensboro, it seems, all roads lead downtown.

It’s been a long time coming, this monument to courage and determination and discipline. But patience is another of the lessons of February One, when four NC A&T freshmen started a movement that changed the world.

For now it’s morning twilight on Elm Street, and those undeterred by the icy chill pick their way along the sidewalks leaving wakes of chuffed steam, down to the corner where it all began. It’s a real scene out here by the dawn’s early light, with bigwigs and muckety-mucks of every stripe beginning to assemble in the cordoned zone at the foot of the stage.

The cameras are rolling all up and down the thoroughfare — seasoned shooters elbow for space on the risers while the rest scramble, guerilla style, for the day’s B-roll. The journos are straight-up jamming this morning, with enough string to gather out here today to fill a dozen front pages and an hour’s worth of 90-second spots.

Off to the side, in front of the art-deco Woolworth’s façade, leans my friend Evelyn Macomson, who I met back in September when she was the very first person in line for tickets to see Michelle Obama speak at the Carolina Theatre.

She’s maybe not supposed to be up here by the rows of seats cordoned off by police barricades, she tells me, but a friend from her church brought her through.

She’s been around Greensboro long enough to remember when even the Carolina Theatre relegated people like her and her friend to the balcony — the Colored Section — where the view never quite lived up to expectations.

Even more: She was a senior at Dudley High School in that summer of 1960, and when the college kids left town she and her friends picked up the banner, sitting in at businesses all over Greensboro in anticipation of a change that was most certainly not guaranteed.

“I helped sit in at the Marriott Hot Shops,” she says proudly. “You’re to young to remember that. It was where that Libby Hill is down on Summit Avenue, by the Cookout. We went and we sat at the tables. If they wouldn’t serve us, they wouldn’t serve anybody.”

After that summer, she says, she went on to Howard University in the fall and got a waitress job in Washington DC — at the Marriott Hot Shops, of all places.

“Can you believe that?” she asks. “The same place I helped integrate.”

She’s entitled to a piece of this action here today — but, as it seems, there is enough to go around. There’s enough for Jesse Jackson, who graduated from A&T in 1964; enough for former Greensboro Mayor Yvonne Johnson seated in the third row, who will later net a place at the ribbon-cutting courtesy of current Mayor Bill Knight. There’s enough, in fact, to saturate all the local politicos and media honchos and handshakeful businessmen in the kind of righteous glow that just feels so damn good when it kicks in.

And surely there’s enough for Skip Alston and Earl Jones, who finally, fortuitously saw this thing through.

There’s even enough left over for Carnie Turman of Greensboro, who says she was 5 years old in 1960.

“I remember all of it,” she tells me as she navigates the icy Elm Street sidewalk. “That store right there, Kress’s?” she says. “We had to use the bathroom and eat downstairs. You still had the colored water fountain, even after. We still couldn’t go to school with white kids.”

And even the Pulpit Forum can make legitimate claim to the quiet bravery employed by the A&T Four as they seize the moment with chants of “We cannot wait!” and leaflets waved in the air, leaflets endorsed by none other than Jibreel Khazan, nee Ezell Blair, who once sat at the whites only lunch counter at Woolworth’s and now sits on the Elm Street stage in a white fez and holding as cornstalk scepter. A protest at the place where a protest is enshrined — what could be more fitting?

But maybe a thousand souls converge on this frigid morning, and the overarching vibe is one of unity and progress.

There are smiles as the sun rises over Elm Street, cutting the chill. There is fellowship in the air that runs down Elm Street, all the way to Market Street where the police barricades end. There is camaraderie.

As the ribbon is cut, opening the International Civil Rights Center and Museum to the public once and for all, a group of A&T alum up in the good seats show their love with shouts of “Aggie pride!” A couple of elderly white gentlemen making their way inside the museum aren’t sure what to make of it.

“What are they saying?” one asks the other. He listens for a moment. “I think it’s ‘Here we go!’” “What’s that supposed to mean?” the first asks. The second one shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know.”