Welcome news that the International Civil Rights Center & Museum has met an important fundraising goal and no longer owes on a city loan brought an unwelcome backlash late Thursday afternoon: A handful of threatening phone calls.
CEO John Swaine said the staff received four or five phone calls that he characterized as “quite ugly.” Callers berated staff with the word “n***er” and said things like, “Y’all pay y’all’s debts, deadbeats.”
Thursday’s announcement that the city was forgiving a $1.5 million loan made over a two-year period from 2013 to 2015 did not come unexpected. Under the terms of the loan, the city agreed to forgive one dollar for every dollar raised by the museum to help satisfy outstanding tax credit payment obligations.
While noting violent episodes in recent years like the 2015 Charleston Massacre and the Unite the Right Rally last year in Charlottesville, Swaine said the increasing prevalence of white supremacy is not typically at the forefront of his mind.
“I’m working on shutting down the old narratives,” he said. “If you have time to reflect on these things, I think you can have some careful thought. If you’re deep in a survival situation and working on a restorative business model, the pettiness passes by you. We have developed a world-class status, having been added to the US Civil Rights Trail. I have a small staff of four employees. It’s hard work staying open. A lot of the people who harbor racist views — I give it little attention. You can’t win an argument with a fool.”
The calls prompted Swaine to suspend self-guided museum tours at least for the time being. With a limited staff and a large crowd anticipated for a program tonight on harassment of black entertainers during the McCarthy era, Swaine said the museum simply doesn’t have the resources to adequately monitor the exhibit space.
Swaine said that in the past staff has discovered damage after patrons took self-guided tours, including scratching on plastic enclosures and children climbing on the jail bars in the “Jail, No Bail” exhibit, although none of vandalism appeared to be overtly racist. When the museum is able to purchase additional surveillance cameras for the exhibits, Swaine said he hopes to restore the self-guided tours.
[pullquote]The International Civil Rights Center & Museum screens Scandalize My Name, a documentary about political repression against prominent African-American entertainers during the McCarthy era. Museum board member Richard Koritz leads a discussion after the screening. The event runs from 6 to 8 p.m. Visit the museum website for more information.[/pullquote]This isn’t the first time the museum has been the target of threats.
After the museum turned down a request from then-candidate Donald Trump in September 2016 to use the facility for a photo op, Swaine said, “People were out of their minds, saying things like, ‘We’re going to burn this place down.’ That was the first time we had someone walk into the museum with a gun.”
Swaine said he believes there are “many good people in the city that don’t condone these kind of things,” adding, “I can’t imagine people in the city wouldn’t celebrate that we’re able to increase traffic in downtown Greensboro and continue to grow and thrive.”
Incidents like the racist threats phoned into the museum provide Greensboro with an opportunity to determine what kind of community it will become, Swaine said, raising a contrast with Charleston, SC, where white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine people at a black church in June 2015.
“I think this institution is a very important one,” Swaine said. “I would appeal to the more enlightened people in the community: Let us not go down the route of Charleston, South Carolina, where we have failed people. I do believe a 23-year-old child with his life in front of him, the adults in that community failed him. I would hope this community would back up and think about what we provide the world because of the educators who come here and are impressed by the resources.”
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