Step by step to freedom and justice

Editor’s note: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the student sit-ins at the Greensboro, N.C. lunch counter. To commemorate this event, the Museum is exploring “Stories of Freedom and Justice” throughout 2010. This post from Director Brent D. Glass is the first in a series that will investigate the history of liberty, equality, and justice in America.

WhiteHouseDirector Brent D. Glass (center).

Earlier this week—January 18—while Americans observed the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I stood in the Oval Office as President Obama proudly displayed a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln. The President spoke to a small group of civil rights veterans and their families and reminded us that Lincoln did not abolish slavery in 1863 but he did declare all slaves in rebellious states would be free. The Emancipation Proclamation, the President said, was a significant step but not the final step toward freedom. For this group of mostly elderly citizens who changed America in the 1950s and 1960s, the President’s message was clear—social progress does not happen with the stroke of a pen.

Xavier 2008-17653Xavier Carnegie, the actor who plays the fictional civil rights activist Samuel P. Leonard in the "Join the Student Sit-ins" program.

My thoughts at that moment turned to the programs underway at the National Museum of American History where we have launched a new initiative called “Stories of Freedom and Justice.” Last weekend an inspiring Martin Luther King, Jr. family festival included musical performances and a symposium featuring two members of the Little Rock Nine, who provided a gripping personal account of their courageous journey to integrate their high school in 1957.The festival also included our popular theatrical performance, “Join the Student Sit-ins” in which we offer visitors the experience of non-violent protest. More than 40,000 people visited the Museum during the MLK weekend and the melody of “We Shall Overcome” echoed throughout the building.

Next month, we will honor the legacy of the Greensboro Four, the college freshmen who staged the sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter on February 1, 1960 and became part of a national protest movement that that eventually led to the desegregation of public facilities throughout the South. On February 3 Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough will present these civil rights pioneers with the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal. We will also host a town hall meeting with high school students to discuss the meaning and significance of the Greensboro sit-in. These programs will continue through the end of July when we will mark the moment that the Woolworth’s sit-in finally ended with an agreement to serve blacks and whites at the lunch counter.

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The lunch counter on display as one of the Museum’s landmark objects has always held a special meaning for me for two reasons. First, it represents the determination of a generation of Americans—black and white, young and old—who understood that racial segregation was wrong and that they needed to do something to end it.  Step by step, as President Obama pointed out in the Oval Office this week, ordinary people accomplished extraordinary deeds. Second, the lunch counter display in the Museum represents our commitment to tell the story of what it means to be an American, a story that involves overcoming barriers to achieve the American Dream of freedom and opportunity.

Brent D. Glass is Director of the National Museum of American History.