GREENSBORO — Dozens of protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement packed the City Council chamber Tuesday night to voice their anger over a number of racial issues — chief among them the city’s recent conflict with the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.
The speakers called the city’s offer to manage the financially troubled museum racist and called on the city to forgive its $1.5 million loan to the museum and for Mayor Nancy Vaughan to resign from the museum’s board.
“I think perception can be a strange animal,” said City Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson. “Some of the things that were said, about the city wanting to do a hostile takeover and change the museum’s message — they weren’t true, but I believe that they believe that it’s true.”
Johnson, who was Greensboro’s first black mayor, said she was encouraged by the passion of the young black activists who spoke but said she believes they don’t have all the facts.
“There’s no conspiracy by the city to take over the museum,” Johnson said. “We all want the museum to survive. That is all that it’s about.”
Vaughan was measured in her reaction to comments directed at her.
“I think I have to do a better job of getting the message out about what we are talking about with the museum,” she said. “We have guaranteed that if we took over management there would be safeguards, that none of the museum’s exhibits would be removed or its message changed. We want to work with them.”
Councilman Zack Matheny said the protest seemed orchestrated.
“It sounded to me like they had a script on the museum and someone wrote it for them,” he said.
Melvin “Skip” Alston, a co-founder of the museum and a member of its board, met with the group before it entered the council chamber but denied planning the protest as a political move against the council.
“This is an independent group of young people,” Alston said. “They have been communicating with the mayor for a number of weeks, trying to get her to take a position on the Black Lives Matter movement, on police brutality, on poverty, and they’re frustrated that they haven’t been getting a response from the city.”
Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan wants to coordinate lobbying efforts of urban areas.
Alston said group members asked to meet with him because they wanted to voice their concerns about the museum.
“They wanted to make sure they had all their facts right about the museum, so I met with them ... and I answered some questions for them,” he said. “But that’s not me planning anything. That’s what I call passing the torch to the younger leadership.”
Among the group’s concerns: the recent controversy over a state committee’s request to place a historical marker near the site of the 1979 Klan-Nazi shooting. The clash between members of the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazi Party and Communist Workers’ Party led to the death of four CWP members and one supporter.
Last week, Matheny and Councilman Tony Wilkins said they didn’t support the marker, which they called “revisionist history” of the clash. They particularly objected to the phrase “Greensboro Massacre,” a popular but divisive description of the event.
Five people were killed and 10 injured in the 1979 Klan-Nazi shootings in the Morningside Homes community.
Protesters questioned whether a city government that argues over such a marker can properly manage a civil rights museum.
The Black Lives Matter movement began after the 2012 death of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed him. The movement has widened to encompass a broad swath of issues surrounding racism and inequality.
Johnson said she applauds the work of that movement and sees the issues of police brutality, racism and unemployment and poverty in the black community as interconnected. But the museum issue, she said, is not as simple as some are making it.
Councilwoman Sharon Hightower agreed.
“I think they had a lot of good things to say, some valid points, and I agreed with some of them,” Hightower said. “But I think on the museum they have some misperceptions. It’s sad that those perceptions are out there, but they are.”