The Civil Rights Movement has always fascinated me. I watched the documentary “Eyes on the Prize.” I read books about Martin Luther King Jr., FBI surveillance of black leaders and anything related to the struggle.
As an intern at the Montgomery Advertiser I drove down the streets where protesters marched. I peered at the church where Martin Luther King Dr. preached and the home where he lived. It’s the closest I’ve been to the movement as journalist, but on Monday I met a journalist who was in the thick of things.
Matthew Lewis photographed the March on Washington, the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and JFK’s funeral. On Monday, Lewis was part of the throng of people celebrating the grand opening of the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro. Monday marked the 50th anniversary of when four N.C. A&T students – Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond and Ezell Blair Jr. – sat at the lunch counter to order food. Their sit-in ignited college students to protest throughout the South. The museum is in the old Woolworth Co. building on Elm Street. It’s where the lunch in sit-in took place.
During Monday’s grand opening, I listened as Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. Mel Watt, (D-N.C.), Sen. Kay Hagan, (D-N.C.), Gov. Bev Perdue and assistant U.S. attorney general Tom Perez made their perfunctory speeches. They talked about bravery, continuing the fight, sacrifice and of course the importance of the political wrangling of today.
My favorite speaker didn’t take the stage. Lewis, but what he had to say moved me the most. I happened to meet him downstairs in the area was his photographs were on display. He wanted photographs of people at the museum. I introduced myself and he explained that it was his photographs that lined the walls outside of the museum’s auditorium.
“I’m honored,” he said. “I’m very elated. Very proud.”
The museum’s main attraction is the long, L-shaped lunch counter with its cracked seats and shiny-chrome appliances. Behind the counter are LCD screens playing a narrated re-enactment of the sit-in protest.
My other favorite exhibit in the museum is the mugshot wall. Civil Rights museums typically acknowledge those who were killed fighting for injustice. The Greensboro museum has a wall with mugshots of hundreds of people who were arrested during the movement.
The mugshots acknowledge the countless unsung heroes who didn’t necessarily die, but still risked their lives to change America. Lewis’ exhibition also documented those brave people. He was as idealistic as many of the people he photographed. Back then, Lewis was a freelance photographer for the Baltimore Afro-American and other publications.
The Pulitzer winning photographer has 22 works at the museum through August. The exhibition includes photos of a fiery Fannie Lou Hamer, a fresh-faced Andrew Young, a stoic Julian Bond and so many others. Then there are pictures of everyday people marching, walking, sitting and fighting for justice.
“I didn’t know I had these photographs, how important it was until years and years later,” he said. “These are some of the great civil rights leaders.”
Whether you’ve heard of them or not.
The International Civil Rights Center & Museum
301 North Elm Street
Greensboro, NC 27401
Article written by: Tonya Jameson