On its busiest weekend of the year, the Levine Museum of the New South welcomed hundreds – Monday, it’s expecting thousands – of people wanting to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Their mission: Explore just how far Charlotte and the South have come because of the movement he led to end segregation and discrimination.
On Sunday, they watched movies about civil rights battles; took their children to “story time” sessions on the Underground Railroad and Rosa Parks; and went through a new exhibit – “Fighting for Democracy” – about World War II veterans who were heroes abroad but “second-class citizens” at home when they returned to a segregated society.
King helped forge a new future “by fighting for everybody,” said Carlos Gladden, 26, of Charlotte, who’s African-American. “Without him, we would not be able to come together and talk with each other.”
As people – black, white and brown – strolled the uptown Charlotte museum on the day before the federal holiday named for King, some imagined what he would make of the New South city of Charlotte today.
Dawne and Duane Orr, an African-American couple in their 50s, seemed to speak for many Sunday in saying that King would be happy and sad if he were able to look around Charlotte nearly 45 years after his death.
He’d see a “a tale of two cities,” said Duane Orr, a junior ROTC high school instructor in Charlotte. “Those people who have been nurtured to take advantage of educational opportunities – we’re seeing some of them go to the top. … But the environment doesn’t exist for a lot of young people – I look at them every single day – who just don’t see it for themselves. There are still obstacles.”
Wife Dawne, a home improvement contractor, agreed. King “would be happy about some things. But we still have work to do,” she said. “While a lot of us have made gains, there are still a lot of people hurting right now. I think he’d be really disappointed in the increasing number of homeless people.”
Also on hand Sunday was Tom Hanchett, the staff historian at the Museum of the New South. He, too, subscribed to the view that King would applaud today’s Queen City – and push for more change.
He noted that in the 1980s white-majority Charlotte elected black mayor Harvey Gantt. So, he said, “Dr. King would be immensely gratified by what he would see in Charlotte. This is a place that has genuinely changed.”
“Dr. King would also goad us to make more change,” Hanchett said. “Our schools are more segregated than they used to be, and we haven’t figured out how to welcome newcomers in ways we might. Immigration is a hot-button issue.”
And it’s an issue, Hanchett added, where King would say to both sides: “You’ve got to deal with it. You can’t put it off.”
Not just another day off
Others talked Sunday about how important it is to keep the King holiday from evolving into just another day off from work and school.
With young sons, daughters and grandchildren by their sides, parents said coming to the museum was a sign of their commitment to educate this generation and those to come about King and his achievements.
“I want make sure he is educated on African-American culture,” teacher Veronica Hodges, 33, said about her 4-year-old son, Luke. “It’s very warming to know that (King’s) dream is somewhat alive. My son goes to a (pre)school where there’s whites and blacks. And I work in an area where there’s blacks and whites.”
Sharon Janech, who’s white, was at the museum with her granddaughter Ella, 10.
King “started a movement that we all need to keep going,” said Janech, 61, a longtime Michigan resident who retired to Lake Wylie, S.C., a year ago. “We have to move forward and be open-minded – that’s what he wants us to do.”
Also Sunday, three generations of the African-American Bryant family, of Charlotte, spent their afternoon at the museum. They all echoed one another about what they and all Americans owe King, who was just 39 when he was murdered in 1968.
“I was raised in segregation,” said Freddie Bryant, 75, who grew up on a family farm in Florida. “Blacks couldn’t drink out of the white fountains . . . It used to be bad.”
Grandson Antonio, 9, knows the story, too: “Without (King), it wouldn’t be like this today. It would be ‘Colored classrooms’ and ‘Colored restrooms’ and ‘Colored diners.’ Martin Luther King made a change in the world.”