Museum opening deserved better

by Jim Longworth

I have a family connection to lunch counter protests. About 10 years before the Greensboro Four staged their courageous sit-in at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, my dad was doing something similar at a lunch counter in Winston-Salem.

He took my sister into the store for an icecream sundae, and before they could get settled on their stools, a little African American girl about my sister’s age perched herself on the adjacent seat. She wanted a sundae as well, but

the counter worker told her there was no service for “coloreds.” My Dad then picked the girl up, put her on his lap and said in a stern voice, “Me and my two girls will all have ice-cream sundaes.” The intimidated server complied. No one outside my family knew about this incident, but I wish they had. Perhaps if my dad’s actions had made national news, then maybe the resistance revolution could have begun a decade earlier.

Instead, it fell upon four NC A&T students to lead the charge for integration, and thanks to their courage on Feb. 1, 1960, America became a bit more civilized.

Last week, the long-awaited International Civil Rights Center & Museum opened in the very building where history was made. Kudos to Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston and NC Rep. Earl Jones for their dogged determination in making a dream come true. The museum is perfect in every way and should be appreciated for its professional presentation. It’s just too bad that the high profile ribbon cutting ceremony didn’t do justice to the museum, or to the Greensboro Four.

The ceremony was flawed on several fronts — some technical, some procedural.

On the technical side, whoever selected the backdrop should be banned from having anything to do with special events. The plain, white shell was neither camera-friendly nor thematically relevant. The only reference to the museum was high atop the shell, and only visible to television viewers for a few seconds whenever the TV stations cut to an extreme wide shot of the crowd.

Meanwhile, the audio was overmodulated on almost everyone who spoke. This problem could have been avoided had the event organizer run extensive sound checks for and with each individual TV station multiple times prior to the broadcast.

And then there was the ribbon-cutting itself, which seemed to honor politicians more than it did the three surviving members of the Greensboro Four. Who can forget Gov. Bev Perdue’s long-winded speech about how the lunch counter sit-in made it possible for her to run for governor. Excuse me? Did I miss something? First of all, the women’s suffrage movement pre-dated the Woolworth’s event by more than five decades. Women were running for president on third-party tickets in the 1800s. And last time I checked, Perdue is part of an old-line, white, Democratic party machine which consistently makes no effort to recruit black candidates.

Speaking of which, Rep. Brad Miller was also up on stage, as if he too had something to do with the museum. Miller, as you recall, sat on the state legislative committee that re drew district boundaries. He successfully pushed through a gerrymandered district for himself, then stepped down from the state legislature in order to claim his pre-ordained seat in Congress. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but wasn’t the purpose of gerrymandered districts (which I oppose) to elect more minority candidates? So why in hell was Miller on stage for the ribbon cutting?

I was also struck by other hypocrisies, including the fact that Perdue and Sen. Kay Hagan (who also made a “look at me” speech) only got elected because they refused to debate their opponents at meaningful forums. Hagan is also famous for refusing to take a stand on issues during her campaign, such as when I asked her if she would seek to repeal the trade agreements which have stripped the state of millions of jobs.

And so the courageous Greensboro Four were upstaged by politicians who have never displayed any courage at all. In fact, when looking at photos and video coverage of the actual ribbon-cutting, it’s hard to see the

honorees for all of the camera-hogs on stage, including Jesse Jackson who had nothing to do with the sit-in. Blame for this fiasco must fall on event organizers and their public relations firm who could have avoided all of the aforementioned flaws and foibles. The International Civil Rights Center & Museum is the crown jewel of our state, and it deserved a better opening. Nevertheless, it’s up to all of us to help sustain it going forward.

That’s because the museum is a much-needed monument to courage in an era when courage is in such short supply. Where are the disciples of the Greensboro Four when we need them most? Why, for example, aren’t students and other citizens staging boycotts of greedy corporations who have laid off their American work force in favor of third-world slave labor? Why do we tolerate a two-party system that gridlocks substantive healthcare reform and can’t seem to stop senseless killings overseas?

Yes, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Jibreel Khazan and the late David Richmond for showing us that four men can make a difference in the fight against injustice. And I owe a debt of gratitude to my dad for showing me that one man can do the same. But it’s time for us to stop memorializing these heroes and start emulating them.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).