On a morning frigid enough to justify hot coffee as a constitutional right, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum debuted Monday amid calls to build upon the legacy of what happened there exactly 50 years earlier.
The outdoor ceremony on South Elm Street capped a 17-year effort to restore the former F.W. Woolworth five-and-dime as a monument to the sit-in movement, which was ignited there Feb. 1, 1960, by four black N.C. A&T freshmen who simply wanted to sip coffee at the whites-only lunch counter.
“The facts don’t matter if the dream is big enough,” McCain [Franklin McCain, one of the four black N.C. A&T freshmen] said, adding that changes always are difficult because people don’t like to make them. “Take pride. Take joy. But more than anything else, take charge.”
Thomas E. Perez, the Obama administration’s emissary to the event, echoed McCain’s theme that work remains on the civil rights front. Racism still exists both in its most overt and more subtle forms, he said.
“We need this civil rights museum so that we remember our history, however painful it may be,” said Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights.
“We need a robust civil rights division so that we can continue to break down barriers to equal opportunity.”
Subtle racism helped make the home-foreclosure crisis worse for “communities of color” because unscrupulous lenders preyed on them before the nation’s housing bubble burst, he said.
Under Obama’s leadership, civil rights lawyers are aggressively enforcing laws aimed at stopping such exploitation, Perez said in a later interview.
The project itself has faced controversy since its 1993 inception, when the Woolworth chain announced the downtown store’s closing. Issues included periods in the late 1990s when it appeared money was being raised aggressively without appreciable progress on the building; the surprise discovery of structural flaws in the building that derailed a plan for opening the museum five years ago; and, more recently, a dispute about building a hotel nearby in a deal that includes Alston as a broker and federal tax credits.