Lewis museum bars civil rights veteran from anniversary event

An elderly icon of Baltimore's early civil rights movement was denied entrance to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African-American History last week after questioning its decision to put a convicted murderer on a discussion panel about the history of the struggle for racial equality.

Dr. Helena Hicks was scheduled to be an honoree and panel participant at the opening of "Struggle: Portraits of Civil Rights and Black Power," the museum's new photography exhibit, last Wednesday when guards stopped her, her son and several friends at the door, according to several witnesses.

The guards told her through her son, Dr. Wayne Hicks, that she had been disinvited and was barred from the premises.

The elder Hicks, a veteran of some of Baltimore's earliest anti-segregation sit-ins during the 1950s, refused to budge at first, the witnesses said, until her son finally prevailed on her to leave.

"I told her I didn't have the time or the energy to get her out of jail or take her to the hospital that night," Wayne Hicks said, adding that his mother has had heart surgery and other health problems in the past few years.

The decision stemmed from a disagreement between Hicks and the museum's executive director, Dr. Skipp Sanders, over his decision to include Eddie Conway — a former Black Panther leader who spent nearly 44 years in prison for the murder of a Baltimore policeman in 1970 — on the panel. The event was part of a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Hicks, 80, is clear that she vehemently opposed the inclusion of Conway, whose conviction in the case she said demonstrated he did not subscribe to the nonviolent tactics at the core of the Civil Rights movement, at least as represented by leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

She made her feelings known during a phone call with Sanders the day before the event, she said, and the two argued.

When she arrived at the event, still expecting to take part, the guards told her she was not permitted on the premises.

No museum officials were present. The guards were part of a team from the Watkins Security Agency, a private firm. The company did not respond to calls seeking comment. Sanders, who declined to be interviewed for this article, issued a one-paragraph statement that Hicks was barred from the event because of concerns about her conduct.

"Regrettably, Dr. Hicks through her words and actions demonstrated an inability to conduct herself in the spirit of open dialogue, conversation, and respect for our visitors, other panelists, and staff," he wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun. "When any visitor, including potential ones, cannot comply with the museum's expectations of civil conduct and safety, the museum reserves the right to refuse them entrance."

Hicks said she found Sanders' statement "astounding."

"I have never met him personally and wouldn't know him if I saw him," she said. "I made my position clear, but I told him I would not interfere with Mr. Conway's presentation, and I always conduct myself as a lady.

"I'm 4-feet-10 and weigh 135 pounds. I'm not an armed terrorist. What in the world is he afraid I'm going to do?"

Sanders declined to comment beyond the statement.

A museum web page described the four invited guests, including Hicks and Conway, as "an exclusive panel of civil rights and black power movement luminaries."

It called Hicks "an activist who boldly helped desegregate the lunch counter at Read's Drug Store with sit-ins as a Morgan University student." The words referred to her part in the 1955 anti-segregation protests in Baltimore, among the first in the nation.

The other guests were Joan Trumpauer Mulholland of Arlington, Va., who took part in an anti-segregation bus trip to the South in 1961, and Robert Houston, a photographer who has documented the civil rights scene.

Their portraits are among a dozen on display on the museum's third floor, and each guest was to take part in the discussion before an audience.

It is not clear when Sanders changed his mind about her participation. Even as Hicks traveled to the museum for the event, she said, she was under the impression she would participate. Witnesses said she was visibly upset by the confrontation.

After she and her party left, the opening proceeded.

Several who attended said officials never explained her absence and panelists never mentioned her.

The developments left Hicks supporters baffled and upset.

One witness, city resident Ron Kreitner, said "a phalanx of security" descended on Hicks.

"It wasn't clear what was going on — it was a crazy situation," said Kreitner, the executive director of West Side Renaissance Inc., and a friend of Hicks. "It was disturbing."

Rob Ross Hendrickson, a Baltimore attorney, said he had just arrived when he saw the guards ushering Hicks from the site.

"They were more or less dragging this teeny elderly lady away," he said.

"I came to hear Dr. Hicks speak and heard she had arrived, so when she never made it inside, I was worried," added the Rev. Dr. Andre Humphrey, the district community liaison for the Baltimore Police Department. "I think they owe her an apology. And there needs to be some public explanation."

Hicks, a retired city and state employee with a doctorate in public policy from Howard University, said she had seen Conway's name on a list of panelists earlier but only realized a day or two beforehand who he was.

Now in his sixties, Conway was freed from prison in March after an appellate court ruled his jury had been given improper instructions. Prosecutors reduced his life sentence to time served and probation. Conway has long insisted he's innocent, though as part of his deal with prosecutors, his conviction stands.

He did not respond to a request through his lawyer to comment for this article.

Hicks found his inclusion "an insult."

"The Civil Rights movement was about gaining economic power, not 'killing the pigs,'" she said in an interview, alluding to a Black Panther rallying cry. "And what kind of example is that for school children, to glorify a man who [was convicted of] killing cops in cold blood? What does it have to do with civil rights?"

Moreover, she said, the Black Panthers weren't formed until 1966, well after both the March on Washington and the passage of the Civil Rights act.

Hicks said Sanders argued the ex-convict should be included to show the public more than one side of the fight for racial equality. She said she wanted no one in attendance getting the idea that she or her colleagues in the civil rights movement condoned violence.

"I told [Sanders], 'I'll participate, but keep that man at the other end of the table from me,'" Hicks said.

Whatever her views, state Sen. Lisa Gladden said, she had a right to share them.

"Everyone deserves a right to be heard," said Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, who was not in attendance but heard about the incident from a constituent. "The right to speak is more important than what you say. To be barred from attending — that's like 1968 stuff."

It's ironic, Gladden added, that Hicks spent years fighting for free-speech and public-access rights only to have the city's African-American museum compromise them.

Though it's heavily funded by the state, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum was founded in 1998 as an independent institution. Maryland funded 75 percent of its $2.5 million operating budget during its first two years and now supplies 50 percent.

The museum has removed any mention of Hicks from its web page about the exhibition, which features the work of Baltimore Sun contributing photographer J.M. Giordano.

Helen Yuen, a museum spokeswoman, said the activist's portrait is on display with those of the other honorees, including Conway, and will remain so until the exhibit's close on Jan. 19.

Giordano called the incident unfortunate. "This exhibition is supposed to be about unity, not division," he said.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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