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Forum participants want to take sit-in spirit into 21 century

by Jordan Green

The day after the blitz of media hype, celebration and commemoration surrounding the opening of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, about 150 people gathered at the Greensboro Historical Museum to puzzle through what lessons the sit-in movement might yield towards improving the conditions of African Americans and advancing justice.

Despite ample numbers and participation from students from several colleges, residents of JT Hairston Memorial Apartments and members of the antipolice brutality October 22 Coalition, the town hall sponsored by the Beloved Community Center often felt like a lonely huddle.

Several students lamented that the young generation is unmotivated and apathetic, picking up a thread from an earlier commemorative panel discussion at the NC A&T University Alumni Events Center almost a week previously.

“I think we are too materialistic,” said Syene Jasmine, president of the Student Government Association at A&T. “This is the MySpace/Facebook era. We want it instantly.”

The Rev. Cardes Brown, president of the Greensboro NAACP, warned that students might not feel they’re directly affected by economic challenges now, but they’ll become more aware when they enter the job market.

“You’re talking about microwaves, instant gratification, ‘got to have it now,’” he said. “You’re going to be victims tomorrow by your decisions made today.”

Joseph Frierson, one of the forum’s moderators, said that the next phase of the movement should be focused on overcoming economic challenges.

“I’m hearing a lot about the economic question,” he said. “Yes, we can sit at the counter, but we don’t have a nickel to buy a cup of coffee.”

Many agreed that poor economic outcomes for African Americans is directly related to education.

“More than 50 percent of African- American males will never see their name on a high school diploma,” Brown said. “That’s today. What do you think that they will do to you tomorrow when they can’t find work and they resort to a life of crime? We are building a jail. The determination of who will go in there is at the third-grade level.”

That reality resonates strongly with Yvonne Johnson, the city’s first African- American mayor, who lost her reelection campaign to Bill Knight in November. Johnson said after the town hall that the Pulpit Forum, a group of African- American pastors in Greensboro, approached her about helping out with a series of community discussions that have become structured into subcommittees tackling economic development, affordable housing, the White Street Landfill, treatment of African-American police officers and education. When asked if grassroots activism feels liberating after almost two decades in electoral politics, the former mayor demurred, saying that she’s always been an activist.

“It’s a way I can continue to serve,” she said. “I’m very, very concerned about saving our children that are having challenges. We want to get the summer institute started, and we want to get these after-school academies going. About three churches have volunteered their space.”

The Rev. Nelson Johnson, executive director of the Beloved Community Center and no relation to the former mayor, articulated an analysis of how the struggle for progress has changed since the Greensboro Four took their seats at the Woolworth’s lunch counter and insisted on being served in 1960.

“In some sense, the civil rights movement, as we knew it, is over,” said Johnson, who came to Greensboro to attend A&T in the late 1960s. “It was largely a movement around legal rights focused largely around African Americans. We have gotten a lot of legal rights. But they’re not being enforced, and we don’t have an ethics of human rights…. People are using ‘middle class’ now. ‘Middle class’ assumes that all above middle class are doing alright anyhow. But when the whole movement is designed for ‘middle class,’ what happens to poor people’s rights? In other words, we are defining a group out of the human circle of concern.”

One challenge highlighted by both panelists and audience members is an ongoing situation at JT Hairston Memorial Apartments in which tenants have complained of being put out for arbitrary and unfair reasons. Laindia Murphy, the dance instructor, represented the tenants on the panel.

Nelson Johnson referenced her situation when he gave a charge to the college students in the audience.

“You want to know what to sit-in for?” he asked. “Suppose a young group of 15 dancers couldn’t dance in their own neighborhood. Handcuffed by the police and treated as gang members. Would you organize to support them? You’re not going to get any glory for it. That comes 50 years later. You might get a statue. If you’re lucky.”

Yvonne Johnson conferred privately with Nelson Johnson during the panel discussion, and told him she would be willing to take part in a delegation to Shiloh Baptist Church, the owner of the apartments.

“I just want to talk to them about some of the stuff that’s going on,” she said later. “[It’s] just an offer to sit down and share what we’ve heard, and find out why they haven’t stepped in [and intervened with the property management company]. You can’t sit in your front yard. You have to park your car a certain way. The person I know who has some issues, I don’t want to talk to much about it because I don’t want to get them in trouble. There’s so much: different charges for different people who lose keys — $6 for some, $40 for others. No play area for the kids. Disturbing reports. Why would you want to put someone out because of having a dance practice? I don’t understand it.”

The Rev. Nelson Johnson, former Mayor Yvonne Johnson, Hairston apartments resident Laindia Murphy and NC A&T University student Carlyle Phillips spoke at a recent forum at the Greensboro Historical Museum. (photo by Jordan Green).

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