In search of inspiration, the DREAM Team went to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, NC. We found what we came for long before the tour was over; nothing could have given the team a greater sense of purpose.

The museum contains the Woolworth’s lunch counter at which four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University staged the a sit-in of what would become a widespread movement. The Woolworth’s is still there, almost completely preserved.

Challenging their plight so publicly exposed a moral crisis in American public life. Clearly our three felt that their efforts held the same spirit in them. Visiting the museum made it clear just how difficult it will be to follow in the footsteps of those four incredibly brave young men.

Because of the Greensboro sit-in, students at historically Black colleges across the South found a successful way to act against injustice. This was a movement decisively led by the young.

The museum houses artifacts from some of our country’s darkest episodes: programs from minstrel shows; photos of the slain body of Emmett Till; poll tests; a Ku Klux Klan uniform and other blemishes on our nation’s history. Images of the brave A&T students and hundreds of people who got arrested for civil disobedience foil the relics of prejudice and hatred.

These trailblazers fought for freedom in an era where racism reigned freely. But just because it no longer does should not allow anyone yet to rest. Something that became clear as we looked upon all of this history was that the speed of progress has always been too slow. From the founding of the country onward, freedom always comes to some far too late.

Perhaps because of their historic accomplishments, we perceive them as existing only within the realm of history. This a time within living memory; plenty perceive it still possible to reverse the tide.

Why is it now that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 suddenly needs to be questioned on its merits? Why is it now that Former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), to the applause of a convention crowd, can suggest bringing back literacy tests to vote? Why is it now that racial profiling, according to those who will never experience it, is suddenly a good idea (or one written into law in Arizona)? Why is it now that an artist in Arizona can be compelled by racists to lighten the skin of children on a school mural?

The answer is simple: the forces of racism and oppression never went away, and somewhat satisfied with the accomplishments of the past, the agents of change stopped fighting them so forcefully.

We went to the museum to learn from these heroes and pay respect to their accomplishments. They are their accomplishments and theirs alone. It is easy to think that after the success of fighters like these that progress is inevitable, but it is not; progress must be defended, and it can only be defended marching forward.

Because they cannot be satisfied with their present condition—as people made to live on the fringe of society—undocumented youth like Loida, Rosario and Viridiana see themselves as heirs to an American tradition of fighting for freedom; an American tradition of speaking out against injustice; an American tradition of one generation achieving something greater than the previous one. What could speak more to the content of their character? What could prove better to what country they belong?

The end of the exhibit displays an excerpt from the speech Obama gave in Berlin on July 24, 2008:

“…The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand…The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christians and Muslims and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.”


Indeed we must. But two years on, he has yet to lead us to do so. The walls between nations have already begun to crumble, making migrants out of millions worldwide. But walls around the minds of millions of others have still been left to stand.

All human beings are worthy of defense against unjust laws; all human beings are worthy of simple human dignity. In order to uphold those principles, we must not be satisfied with civil rights, but improve upon them to achieve human rights. And that is a cause too urgent to leave to the next generation.

Photos by Justin Valas via Flickr

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