Fresh Eyes: Letting go of the lunch counter

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Molly McGinn credit Jordan Greenby Molly McGinn

Lacy Ward has a few questions.

They may have started back in November when the International Civil Rights Center & Museum fired him as executive director. Or back in April 2014, when he first arrived with fresh eyes, a ton of experience and eagerness to build a bridge between the community’s desire for a more inclusive museum board and the board’s desire for exclusive governance.

In retrospect, Ward says he missed a few crucial clues indicating it wasn’t going to happen like that. And now, he says the city’s broader vision to honor Civil Rights can still happen. It’s just probably not going to happen at the corner of February One and Elm Street.

“People are saying, ‘My vision is…,’” Ward says, leaving off the end of the sentence. “People have been disappointed that their vision has not been fulfilled by an institution. That doesn’t mean you give up on your vision.”

When asked, Ward doesn’t say what that vision is. He just kicks the question back: What do you think? What’s your vision?

I saw an incubator for social change. Where people from around the world or across the state could gather, vet out their differences, find some healing and some solutions. Organize and join the fight against Amendment One. Embrace immigrants. Establish a living wage. Give Greensboro an identity that could attract jobs and keep them here.

But the museum’s vision is to remain exclusive in its governance and its appeal, Ward says. That’s to be respected. And it’s time to move on.

“You can spend a lot of time saying, ‘Please do these things there,’” Ward says. “So the question should be, ‘Where can we get these things done?’”

If it can’t happen at the lunch counter where can it happen? And how would we get there?

Ward offered some questions and a few answers.

Why are we asking the ICRC&M to be more than it wants to be?

“We’ve probably asked that question as a community for two decades. I think a great number of people see potential in dealing from a broader community perspective with this city’s Civil Rights history. And everyone that’s had those views has tried to express those views through the historic site, through the lunch counter. And that may not be the only avenue.”

Where do you invest to satisfy those aspirations?

“Financial sustainability comes from broad appeal. The broader your market, the broader the basis of support, the more places you can go for financial support and better the possibility of being financially sustainable.

“If you have a board where the major donors are not part of the governing structure, then you don’t have a healthy nonprofit, because it’s their motivation, excitement around the future vision that continues to draw in additional funding. And if they’re not present, that means they’re not part of creating a future vision.

“They can share a creative vision, and you can vet out the differences as you walk along the path. Neither side wants to walk down the path by itself. Creative and capital have to work together. If you don’t have both, there’s no way to convert vision to reality.”

What aspirations are you trying to fulfill?

“Part of the vision [at the museum] was to see the A&T Four as college students. To see them in the context of all college students enrolled in Greensboro at that time. The city is very fortunate to have a diversity of higher-ed institutions, and as college students, to see what was it like from multiple perspectives.

“That can still be done: What’s it like to be a student when your nation is changing? And it’s as simple a question as that. And I think you want to get a lot of different answers. One answer might be activism. One answer might be nonchalant. One answer might be working too hard as a student to even pay attention to the outside world. There’s no one student view.”

Why are we focusing on the museum to fulfill a broader community vision?

“This is the question for the community. The external community as well needs to ask itself, needs to ask for a different result from that body. Knowing what you want, what are the different avenues to make that available? Which ones will you choose? And that’s a process, I can’t give you an answer.”

  • Doug Copeland

    I agree with Lacy. There are a number of additional and exciting opportunities available if the museum with would broaden its focus to include more than a single day. (I am a member of the 1960 Society, have been through the museum multiple times and I know there are other photos, etc)

    Here are a couple of opportunities, some which need to be seized immediately. To involve a broader section of the community, couldn’t you began to record memories of the entire population relative to segregation? Here I clearly mean the white population and some of their memories of the unfairness, the incidents, the first time they experienced or saw segregation or discrimination. PBS through the years has done a phenomenal job of recording people’s stories through their Story Corps . The best of these are broadcast weekly on various PBS stations. Think about bringing the white community in for a late afternoon or evening recording session each month. Include anybody who wants to come and listen to the stories as they are recorded. You really broaden the base and create a very welcoming atmosphere.

    You can broaden the city’s reach on the entire race and freedom topic. If you’ve ever been to a place like the Gettysburg Battlefield you buy or rent a CD to play in your car as you drive through the battleground. It explains the progress of the battle, various sites. What a great CD to create and have the Convention and Visitors Bureau distribute. For all the families driving to North Carolina they could order it in advance or download it onto an mp3 player. As they approached area sites like Palmer Institute or Guilford College the site of the Underground Railroad it would provide them with the context of that site before they stop to tour. Expand it throughout the Triad. I believe the first organized black church congregation with a building is in Old Salem. There are so many opportunities to take his idea and grow it geometrically. Promote it through the many family reunions that take place each year in North Carolina and capture those folks who are coming to our state to participate.

    The opportunities abound for the museum to be the centerpiece and catalyst for great things. All we have to do turn our focus forward and outward, and think about what is possible. Thank you Molly and Lacy.

    • Brian Clarey

      These are great ideas, Doug. It should also be the first place people turn to when civil rights issues like Ferguson come up.