by John L. Swaine
As 2016 reaches its end, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum nears the completion of seven years of successful operations. Having navigated a challenging path, we celebrate this hard-earned institutional performance as a foundation for our future growth and increasing strength. We are tough-minded believers in the progress of a civilization distinguished — and ultimately defined — by the elevating themes of civil liberty and full citizenship for all of our people. But we must not forget the need for continued enlightenment and creative thinking about these transformative values.
In August, Sit-In Movement, Inc. — the private, non-profit parent company of the Civil Rights Museum — attained a milestone that ranks second only to the fulfillment reflected in the Museum’s opening on Feb. 1, 2010. Adding to a similar resolution in 2015, we successfully brought to a close nearly $36 million in complex tax credit arrangements that funded the establishment of this inspiring institution at the same time that it supplied a dynamic hub of economic development for Downtown Greensboro. At this point, the financial obligations of the Museum are down to less than $1.3 million, which we can address by normal fund-raising.
This accomplishment was the end-product of steady financial management, with a strategic “eye on the prize” of our future sustainability and impact. We now move confidently toward completing the consolidation of the Civil Rights Museum’s nationally celebrated founding, having built a secure platform for viewing the bright future of this cherished international landmark of the struggle for social justice and civic inclusion.
Earlier in the summer, the ICRCM received notice that our common efforts with the other 14 landmarks that make up the United States Civil Rights Trail had reached another step in their progress toward recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site when the Mayor of Birmingham, Ala., announced approval by the National Park Service to advance the nomination.
During this inaugural stage of the Museum’s establishment, it has achieved impressive educational impacts at a site that has been preserved as a historic marker of a profound earlier struggle for basic human equality. The Museum has itself become a recognized destination, serving more than 70,000 visitors each year in the downtown area. More than half of these are school-age students who encounter the dynamic history of the movement for an equal place in American society. As we regularly earn the No. 1 position on Tripadvisor.com’s list of the area’s most approved tourist attractions, we have continued to help generate commercial activity in Downtown Greensboro.
The historic significance of this landmark can be seen by the fact that small sections of our F.W. Woolworth’s iconic lunch counter, where the broader Sit-In Movement against racial segregation was spurred, now resonate with symbolic presence on the National Mall in Washington,
D.C. — as a centerpiece of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and as authentic exhibit artifacts at the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture. But the major part of the restored lunch counter and stools remain, as they were, at the Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, where visitors describe their experiences as both soberly informative and hopefully transformative. Yet, today, as we focus our attention on the provocative gumption of the N.C. A&T Four — young men named Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair (Jibreel Khazan), Franklin McCain and David Richmond — their past struggle for human dignity and equal status continues, even as its achievements undergo severe challenge. To this striving, we dedicate the Museum’s growing capacity to help a longing community — local, national, and international — understand and address challenges to our hopes for human progress.
The difficult breakthrough emblematized by this landmark on behalf of building a better America, which had been promised a century earlier by the Constitution and which was pushed forward at this internationally recognized “site of conscience,” put Piedmont North Carolina on the map in the 1960s as a world center for lessons on the struggle for civil and human rights. Since then, North Carolina prospered economically and culturally under the image of moderate progressivism. In recent years, however, the state government’s deep and notorious descent into statutory bigotry against sexual minorities and tactical racial discrimination against voting rights has sullied the North Carolina brand, in official defiance of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. With the 13th, these Amendments (which we call the “Core-Three”) were, and are, the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement.
Now, in much the same spirit as the brave action at the F.W. Woolworth’s landmark enlivened the Civil Rights Movement, and as the imaginative investments made by Sit-In Movement, Inc., have encouraged the revival of Downtown Greensboro, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum plans another strategic intervention. As the focus of our Center and the keystone for the second stage of our founding as a national and international institution, we have opened an Initiative for the New Constitution. Its aim is to expound and promote a constitutional world where the solemn promises made by this People to itself in the Core-Three Amendments 150 years ago are shifted from largely forgotten hopes or objects of defiance into compelling values and durable facts. Our aim is to counter this nation’s civic decay into ideological division and mutual contempt with a vision of what a full-on Civil Rights America can be for, with our eyes on a possible future.
In surveying the quality of social encounters resulting from the political election campaign over the last year, let us commit ourselves to the need for advancing civic intelligence and mutual respect in the coming year. We ask you to join us, as we have joined the A&T Four, in working toward achieving this nation’s constitutional regeneration.
– John L. Swaine is the CEO of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Downtown Greensboro.