Herald-Sun editorial: Projects offer window into civil rights history

Dec. 19, 2012 @ 10:50 PM

Two recent projects provide a needed perspective on local civil rights history. Learning and knowing that history should be of importance to every American, but is particularly meaningful to those of us living in the South.

One of those projects is a planned public art project aimed at capturing a bit of civil rights-era history. The other was a recent screening of a locally produced documentary from 60 years ago.

A downtown mural project is planned to commemorate Durham’s civil rights history, the city announced on Monday. The $20,000 project will be funded by Durham Cultural Master Plan money that comes from hotel occupancy tax revenue that flows from Durham County to the city of Durham.

The project is to be led by muralist and arts educator Brenda Miller Holmes, who has led similar projects in San Francisco. It will involve 15 young people from Durham, between 15 and 20 years old, and 15 residents older than 21. In addition, Benjamin Speller, former dean of North Carolina Central University’s School of Library and Information Science, will lead several public workshops on civil rights history.

A recent event offered another window into the history of civil rights in Durham. Last week, more than 100 people were present for a screening of a 20-minute documentary, “Negro Durham Marches On,” a 1948 film produced by the Durham Business and Professional Chain, a black business organization. The film provided a look at the thriving Hayti neighborhood, which boasted many prominent black-owned businesses and organizations.

After the film, those in attendance talked about their memories of that special time and that special neighborhood.

“You talk about bringing back memories,” said Rep. Mickey Michaux, born in the center of Hayti in 1930. “I recognized so many places, so many people.” The Hayti community, Michaux added, was “probably the most prominent African-American community in the nation. It was a self-contained community that looked out for itself. We didn’t have to go across the tracks for anything.”

Those interested in civil rights history would undoubtedly agree that, while the past is important, the present and future are even more important. Inequalities exist today that need confrontation and need to be addressed – inequalities not only of discrimination based on ethnicity and gender, but also inequalities, sometimes related, based on lack of opportunity because of socioeconomic conditions. Those lessons of the past come in handy today.