It Just Might Work: The mayor’s museum takeover

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by Eric Ginsburg

This is a tense issue, and that’s exactly why we shouldn’t shrink away from it.

Last week, Mayor Nancy Vaughan held a press conference to announce the offer for the city to take over and manage the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, but many media outlets, including Triad City Beat, didn’t receive word due to a glitch in the city’s system. I didn’t hear about a press conference the next day organized by the Greensboro NAACP opposing the proposal until 20 minutes after it started, and one of the organizers only posted the announcement online 30 minutes prior. That is to say, I didn’t attend either event though I would’ve liked to be at both, but I have talked to folks on both sides and have a sense of what’s going on.

The details of how this proposal emerged and how the board reacted are a little hazy, but I don’t see why that should be the focus here. Instead, the possibility of the museum being run as a public facility should be discussed on its own merits and seriously considered.

Part of the problem may be that the museum’s board, and its core backers, don’t want to hear it. It makes sense that they would be defensive, especially when there are plenty of people who would genuinely like to see the museum fail and others who operate from a paternalistic viewpoint that the museum, run at its core by black community leaders, needs saving by white liberals. But it’s hard, and disingenuous, to cast Mayor Nancy Vaughan in with that lot.

We are far from rid of the insidious disease of racism as a city or a society. It no doubt has much to do with the disappointing lack of support the museum has received from the city and public in the past. TCB has argued before that we need to go much farther as a city in celebrating itself as the City of Civil Rights — could this be a way to do just that?

Many people are wary of the museum’s board, particularly its cofounders Skip Alston and Earl Jones, maybe rightly so. Plenty of museum backers are wary of the city and its intentions, and there are plenty of historical examples that back that up.

But if the museum were a part of the city, $1.5 million in public funds might not look like a bailout, but just a component of the city’s responsibility. It would turn the International Civil Rights Center & Museum into a financial responsibility for all of us.

There are some concerns that the city takeover of the museum would lead to a whitewashed telling of the Civil Rights Movement, a fear with merit considering the Greensboro Historical Museum has prioritized things like the city’s laughable claim on Dolley Madison instead of grappling with Greensboro’s more controversial chapters.

But part of the issue with the museum as it stands is that the ICRC&M already downplays the turbulence and complexity of what qualifies as relevant history, purposefully sanitizing controversy and excluding mention of the Greensboro Massacre or the A&T/Dudley Revolt. Maybe it’s the history major in me, or maybe it’s just what I’m drawn to, but my high hopes for the museum fall flat when I walk through it.

There are very real and legitimate reasons that people could oppose the city running the civil rights museum. I don’t mean to say it’s the answer. We do indeed have a history of attempted co-optation, however well intentioned and seemingly benevolent, as evidenced by language that casually rebrands the NC A&T Four as the “Greensboro Four.” But that doesn’t mean that Vaughan’s proposal should be dismissed out of hand.

Either way, people who want the museum to stick around and be a centerpiece of the city need to be open to frank conversations about how we get there. At least consider all of the options put forward.