Last week I visited the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, NC. Its focus, in spite of its rather lengthy appellation, is rather tight: the sit-ins at the downtown Woolworth’s lunch counter, which began on February 1, 1960.
This event should be commemorated, and its impact lauded. Four black college freshmen, brave to the marrow, sat at the lunch counter and simply requested cups of coffee. Easy enough—except that only whites were served at the counter. Their sitting at the counter was immediately taken up by hundreds of others, in dozens of locations across the South, until finally the company relented: it lifted the ban of non-whites at the counter. It was a solid, deep, and non-violent victory, a true milestone on the path to full enfranchisement for all citizens.
Being housed in the former Woolworth’s building, the museum certainly projects the quality of authenticity. Video re-enactments—although a bit sanitized—convey the event to good effect. Context is established through the guided tour, as visitors view photos of slave labor and lynchings. A Klansman’s full robe and hood are on display, as are photos of mob violence and the open casket of Emmett Till.
Artifacts of the Jim Crow era are presented as well, from the segregated drinking fountains and restrooms, to the double-sided Coke machine having an increased price on the side used by blacks. Travel, worship, education, commerce, military service, and other aspects of life are briefly touched. Familiar names—Parks, King, X, Jackson, and Gandhi—are invoked. But above them all, as if out of proportion, are the names of the Greensboro Four: McNeil, McCain, Blair, and Richmond. Make no mistake—they are significant names, and should be memorialized. But in an international center for civil rights, their elevation is a bit out of scale.
Tacit mention of a few other struggles is given through photos at the end of the tour. But iconic photos do not do justice to the struggles in Kosovo, or to the June 4th Incident in Tianamen Square, or to the fall of the Berlin Wall, or to Mohandas K. Gandhi, or to Nelson Mandella.
As the tour finished, I was surprised that there was never a call-to-action. Not even a simple encouragement for us to call our representatives on behalf of gays seeking marriage equality. In fact, there was no indication that there is even anything else to do, as if the international civil rights movement had achieved its goals. With its chosen appendix of icons, the museum aligned itself with completed or expired missions.
This sense of “doneness” is the museum’s chief weakness. It is also a fatal one.
For the African-American struggle for freedom and equality, as truly and supremely important as it has been, is but a drop from the ocean of civil oppression.
It is a commonly known fact that women struggle for basic rights in Arab nations. Lesser known is that migrant farm workers in the US—citizens and “illegals” alike, adults and children alike–are excluded from very basic labor and protection laws. Somehow, the trafficking of women has not yet been outlawed the world over. Somehow, “honor killing” is still legal, pardoned, or ignored in various countries, East, West, Moslem, Hindu, and Christian. Shall we mention Guantanamo? Or perhaps LGBT struggles in Indonesia? Is the museum brave enough to discuss the plight of Leonard Peltier? Would they like to remind us that our dependence upon cheap foreign labor is a global expansion of our historic race issues?
The museum’s failure to issue a call-to-action for other struggles is mirrored by its ignoring of other historical movements. What about the Chiapas Conflict? What about the American Indian Movement? The labor movement in the US and abroad? First Nations movements in Canada? What about the Irish? Has the museum heard of women’s suffrage? Do they know about the successes of movements in Australia?
The disenfranchised comprise a veritable multitude, and the momentum from any movement gives promise to other movements. By assuming its title, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum owes at least a mention to all the ongoing struggles worldwide. No, that’s not strong enough. The International Civil Rights Center & Museum must—absolutely must—be a loud rancorous voice on the stage of oppression. It must be the heavyweight champion of the world, never retiring, never relenting, constantly keeping the opposition on its heels, in a fight just as aggressive as that of the African-Americans that it honors so well.
The African-American Civil Rights Movement was a monumental achievement, and it must be celebrated, preserved, retold, mythologized even. But it is not, and never has been, the only fight.
Is it wrong to criticize the International Civil Rights Center & Museum for not being more than it is? No, not when it proclaims itself to be more than it is.