It has been 50 years since four young men sat in at a lunch counter in Greensboro to oppose segregation. But segregation still remains. The International Civil Rights Center and Museum opens this month at that site in Greensboro heralding the courageous work against segregation, but that museum needs to understand its own history. Segregation still exists and the museum doesn't just chronicle it, it promotes it.
There has always been a disturbing intersection between racism and ageism. Those who suffered the greatest degree of racism 50 years ago were largely young; those today who suffer the greatest degree of ageism are largely black. Race and age share a long and sad history.
Race and age also share a long and courageous history. Young people were the foot soldiers in the war against segregation in the south. They marched, they sat-in, they organized, they led and they achieved victory over racism. Unfortunately their great deeds are often forgotten. We all know Rosa Parks, but few know the name of Claudette Colvin, the teenager who refused to give up her seat on the bus months before Rosa Parks. We all know Dr. Martin Luther King but how many know the names of Ezell A. Blair Jr., David Leinhail Richmond, Joseph Alfred McNeil, and Franklin Eugene McCain?
Blair, Richmond, McNeil and McCain sat in at a lunch counter in a Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth's. Ignoring the "white's only" sign, these brave men risked arrest and violence to oppose segregation. Their non-violent protest sparked a movement and ultimately led to the formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a youth-led organization and one of the most important groups in the civil rights movement.
Earlier this month, on the site of their brave stand, a new museum opened to honor and remember the brave action of these four young men, and many more who followed them. The NY Times heralds their memory and the museum that honors them with the headline, "Four Men, a Counter and Soon, Revolution." But, in the eyes of today's world they were not men. They were boys. All four of them were 17-year-old students.
These brave pioneers risked everything for a world free of racism, segregation, discrimination. They inspired thousands to follow their actions and swept away most of the overt racism they experienced when they were young. With the great sea change that occurred over the last 50 years, if these brave pioneers were still 17 today, what world would they find themselves in?
If they hopped on a bus they'd have to conclude the Freedom Rides had failed, since they could be held and arrested for running away if they left without permission of their parents. If they tried to vote they'd have to conclude that Freedom Summer was a failure, since they'd be turned away from the polls. Indeed, they'd have to conclude their own sit-in had failed as they would be met with "adults only" signs in CD stores, gas stations, restaurants and businesses across this nation.
In fact, in the museum erected in their own honor, they'd be met with signs enforcing segregation. Not just "whites only" or "for colored" signs that exist behind a velvet rope, relics of a by-gone era, but signs that enforce segregation still today. The Greensboro Four would be allowed inside, but their younger siblings would not. The International Civil Rights Center and Museum which opened Monday in Greensboro, NC does not let individuals under 12 inside the Hall of Shame, an exhibit showcasing the uglier side of racism, segregation, and Jim Crow. The NY Times describes the Hall of Shame exhibit at the museum:
On fractured frames and accompanied by sound effects of water hoses or tree limbs creaking with the weight of lynched bodies are horrific photographs of racist violence: the 1930 lynching of two men in Marion, Ind.; the 1919 burning of the body of a black man, Will Brown, in Omaha; police dogs attacking protesters in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963; the swollen, battered face of Emmett Till at his open-coffin funeral in Chicago in 1955. The images enforce a visceral sense of the brutish racial hatred at work.
Disturbing images, all. But those disturbing images tell the story of a disturbing time. That story is the duty of that museum to tell. If we shield ourselves from the past we distance ourselves from it. This story, this history is far too important to distance ourselves from.
One of the most dramatic moments of the civil rights movement was the funeral of Emmett Till. Despite the gruesome, horrific image of her son's body lying in the coffin, Mrs. Till insisted it be left open. "I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby," she said. It took great courage to show the world the bloody reality of racism. Today it takes great weakness to cover it up.
Young people deserve to know the truth. Because while we feel they are too frail and fragile to learn about what happened 50 years ago, they were not too frail or fragile to experience what happened 50 years ago. Emmett Till was 14 years old. Considered a boy, but he was murdered all the same. His age did not protect him from his assailants. The age of his siblings and cousins did not shield them from the pain of losing Emmett, nor spare them the sight of his bloody body.
The NY Times article says the Hall of Shame also includes images of dogs attacking protesters in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. What the article doesn't say is that many of those protesters would be unable to visit their own exhibit in the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. On May 2nd and 3rd, when their parents were too afraid to get involved, young people skipped school to march through the streets of Birmingham. Over a thousand students, some as young as eight, marched through the streets against segregation. Newsweek called this the "Children's Crusade."
Just like with Emmett Till eight years earlier, their age did not protect them from the brutal reality of racism. On May 3rd, the Birmingham police turned fire hoses on the young protesters, let loose their dogs to attack them, and arrested hundreds. The horrible images of those attacks rippled around the planet. Those images galvanized the civil rights movement and brought international scorn upon Bull Connor and the rest of the steadfast racists in Birmingham and throughout the south. Where all the chants and books and eloquent speeches failed, those images of brutality succeeded. Five days later the city of Birmingham gave in to the demands of the protesters.
Four months later, the church where many of those young protesters gathered to march through the streets of Birmingham was bombed by domestic terrorists. Four young women lost their lives. Four girls. One of whom, Carol Denise McNair, was only 11. Not old enough to visit the civil rights museum on her own, but old enough to die from a bomb in Birmingham.
Without those children and without those images the world would be a different place today. Yet children the same age as those who faced down brutal oppression are banned from seeing those images and learning about those great deeds. 50 years after the sit-ins at a lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, young people still face segregation today.
A few months before, and an hour and a half away from where children were assaulted with fire hoses and killed with bombs in Birmingham, Governor Wallace declared in his inauguration, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." His defiance seems dated, but was regrettably prophetic. I doubt Joseph McNeil would see much difference between a lunch counter refusing to serve him because of his race and a lunch counter refusing to serve him because of his age. It is often said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
It would be certainly nice to have a place where the lessons and mistakes of the past were taught to the next generation. Sadly, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum still has much to learn.