Saturday, April 10, 2010

Turmoil and Triumph: International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina

Turmoil and Triumph: International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina

I was excited to visit the new International Civil Rights Museum in my mother’s hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina for What You Can Do’s month focused on respect and diversity. On February 1, downtown Greensboro celebrated the museum’s long-anticipated opening in the historic Woolworth’s five and dime store building. The opening date coincided with the 50th anniversary of the nation’s first sit-in at the segregated lunch counter of the Woolworth’s store, organized by 4 freshman students from North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro.

On a spring-like February afternoon, my mother and I took the short drive downtown to check out the new museum. We joined about 50 people for a group tour, which started with a short video about the history of the civil rights struggle from the abolition of slavery to Jim Crow laws and segregation. Next we moved on to the graphic “Hall of Shame”, which displayed horrifying photos of lynchings, hangings and burning crosses during the civil rights turmoil. The appalling images resonated with my mother’s comment earlier in the day about growing up the 50’s & 60’s, “I can’t believe these terrible things actually happened in my lifetime.” A Greensboro native, she has vivid memories of the local chaos and national attention resulting from the sit-in movement.

The next exhibit was a short film portraying the 4 freshman NC A&T college students as they planned the sit-in to integrate the Woolworth’s lunch counter. I was amazed that students in their teens summoned the courage to challenge injustice in our country. When I was a college freshman, I could barely make it to class on time. After the film, a replica of an NC A&T dorm room from the 1960’s was unveiled to show where the students might have hatched their plan. Our group then took the escalator up to the Woolworth’s lunch counter exhibit, where it seemed like we beamed ourselves back in time to 1960. The sprawling lunch counter framed by metal stools with blue and orange cushions was preserved with amazing authenticity, as was the menu above the counter offering a Turkey Club for $.65, Pepsi for $.5 and Cherry Pie for $.15.

Behind the lunch counter, film reenactments showed students joining the sit-in movement at Woolworth’s by reading quietly and ignoring hecklers in peaceful protest. The film revived the historical events to show us how our lives, our country was transformed by the brave people who won the fight for their freedom decades ago. We learned that the sit-ins continued for seven months and ended with the successful integration of the Woolworth’s lunch counter.

Our tour continued through galleries revealing an inside look at segregated America from hospitals to voting and education. An especially powerful example of the dichotomy between life for blacks and whites was a hologram with overlapping images of a bright, clean school classroom for white children, and a crowded, rustic classroom for black children. The tour concluded with the somber “Wall of Remembrance”, paying tribute to the people who lost their lives in the fight for racial equality.

I left the museum with a deep gratitude for my inherent freedom and rights, and for the bravery of the protestors and activists. The museum offers a powerful view into the time in our country when “liberty and justice” did not apply to all of our citizens. Heroes like Martin Luther King and the “Greensboro 4” show that even one person has the power to inspire a movement of positive change. By living the What You Can Do project’s mission to take small steps to solve big problems in our country and beyond - imagine what we can all do together.

Guest blog written by Ashley Kaufman, to read the full article, please visit - Points South

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