Letting Go of the Lunch Counter

The lunch counter exhibit at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, NC. Photo via ArchDaily.

The lunch counter exhibit at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, NC. Photo via ArchDaily.

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.”

This article originally published in Triad City Beat, Feb. 4.

Fresh Eyes: Hard Cider, Hard Issues with Lacy Ward


This article published in Triad City Beat December 3, 2014

GREENSBORO—November was uncompromising. It opened with the board of directors at the International Civil Rights Museum firing the executive director, Lacy Ward, and ended with a grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Ward hasn’t said much publicly since the firing and neither has the museum. But under his leadership, I’d started to see the museum as something like a civil-rights think tank, where preachers, teachers, artists and politicians could get together and create model programs for cities across the US, a place where people could peacefully protest, express anger and, once their boots have cooled, come inside and start working on solutions.

And I wondered what a conversation about Ferguson could have looked like in the museum, if the doors weren’t closed to the protesters outside. Where do we go from here? Just because the conversation can’t happen at the museum right now doesn’t mean it can’t happen somewhere else.

So I sent Ward a message on Facebook.

We met at Scuppernong Books on Elm Street last week, the night before Thanksgiving. He asked for hot apple cider at the bookstore bar, but they only had hard cider.

As we sat down, I asked Ward: If you could create a handbook on how to have a conversation from here, post-Ferguson, to strengthen the relationship between the community and the police, what would it look like? Where do you start? Here’s what he said.

Choose a common language

“The first step is to find a common language. Race isn’t a common language for Americans. For us, it produces a multitude of languages that are ethnically based.

“In the case of Michael Brown, what’s the initial crime? It’s jaywalking. What’s the final outcome? It’s the use of deadly force, and effective use of deadly force. The suspect is dead. We need to ask ourselves: ‘Is that the way we want to police America?’

“If most people can agree on the answer that jaywalking should not result in death, then we have found a common area of discussion. That’s the language.

“We need to have a higher-level conversation than the one race gives us. Race is a very emotional conversation, but that’s where we’re stuck. We’re stuck in a race conversation that doesn’t give us an answer to the problems that confront us.”

Define public safety

“What does public safety mean to you? You need to have that conversation out in the open, absent from current events to influence that discussion. Public safety has different meanings based on race — we already know that, right? So you need to have an open discussion across the social construct of race to examine things like, “‘What is public safety?’”

Understand the monopoly of violence

“The state — and I don’t mean the state of North Carolina, I mean the government — the state has a monopoly on violence. What does that mean? It means we as citizens have surrendered violence to the state. We will give to the state the power to exercise violence. Why? To maintain peace. The state is allowed to legally use violence, because when we as citizens use violence, we create anarchy. So to keep peace we surrender that. But we don’t surrender the discussion of when the use of that violence is appropriate.”

Define deadly force

“When we do we all feel ready to surrender to the state the use of deadly force? Are we willing to surrender it for jaywalking? It’s a question we all need to answer because a police officer with body armor and a gun is authorized to exercise violence on our behalf — because we gave that monopoly to him or her. How far do we want to him or her to go in terms of keeping the peace?

“Look at the numbers: How much are you willing to spend to maintain peace?

“How much money will the state of Missouri spend due to the actions of one civil servant? The National Guard was called in, sales-tax revenue was not collected due to looting and rioting. That money’s going to come from healthcare, education, parks and rec, all services the state of Missouri is bound to provide, services which provide better results for people in the long term. Those dollars had to be diverted because of one officer’s actions. Isn’t that a crime?

“Do we want to give one civil servant the authority to cost the state that much money, for jaywalking? So before the answer, we need to predict, what’s going to be the ultimate cost of using this tactic to address this offense?

“In Greensboro, we need to have an open discussion on having body cameras. What does it mean to wear them? And what are the rules under which they are utilized? What’s the common purpose? Protect the officer? Or line the pockets of the company who makes the cameras?”

Get in the conversation about how police are trained

“Officer Wilson said he responded in the way he was trained. I was in the military; we train our police officers the same way we train our military: kill. As military members we kill in the name of national defense. Until we tell them differently through police academies, through training, this is what we should expect from them.”

Give the police ‘surety of purpose’

“A public discussion about training, which will influence the police chief, will influence the norms and the behaviors observed by beat cops. The police department, I believe, is open to citizen guidance. Do we have the right process in place? I don’t know. I think officers would love to have that surety of purpose.”

Have a public conversation with a diverse group of people

“Bring together a diversity of people — chosen not by race, but experience. Representatives of city council, a representative of police or public safety, a representative of the faith community, youth community and the business community. You need to know how to collectively accumulate your voice in such clarity that the sworn officers of the state, the paid officers of the state, can understand you. They work for you.

“We can only start where we are. I’m okay with that. We can decide where we go.”