by Jordan Green

The 12:40 p.m. group descended the elevator into the basement of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum for one of several tours on opening day. The tour begins with an illuminated banner decorated with the American flag and inscribed with words from the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal.” Behind it, slowly revealed, are some of the artifacts that made a mockery of that promise, including a sign emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag and bearing the words, “Zoned a white community.”

Among the 12:40 group was former Mayor Keith Holliday, a white man who retired from city politics more than two years ago. The group moved through the darkened corridors of a “hall of shame” in which illuminated sections of jagged glass display the atrocities of white resistance to civil rights, including the mutilated body of Emmett Till and the iconic image of a snarling police dog menacing a protester in Birmingham, Ala.

When the group reached an exhibit entitled, “Access Denied: The Battle for Equality of Opportunity,” the tour guide began explaining that blacks were limited to special screenings at Greensboro movie theaters so that whites would not encounter them.

Lolita Watkins, a curatorial program associate, corrected the guide, informing the group that, in fact, blacks were forced to sit in the balcony while whites occupied the lower level. Watkins, a black woman who grew up in Reidsville, saw her first movie, South Pacific, as an elementary school student at the Carolina in 1959.

Holliday, who became president of Carolina Theatre after retiring from politics, quickly picked up the thread.

“They’d have to walk up the side entrance three flights,” he said, adding, “It was integrated in 1962, a couple years after [the Woolworth sit-ins.]” After the tour, Holliday reflected, “As much as I know about the atrocities and injustices of the past, to see it focused in your face was sobering. I am so excited about what I believe will be an awesome location for our young people to get some genuine sense of how unfair life was before 1964.”

— Jordan Green