The director of Baltimore's African-American history museum on Thursday defended his decision to bar a civil rights leader from an event marking the 50th anniversary of landmark legislation after she questioned the decision to include a convicted murderer among the honorees.
A. Skipp Sanders, executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, said he barred Helena Hicks, 80, from the premises last week because he "could not be assured that she would be respectful and courteous to other panel members and in the presence of our audience" and "she might not be tolerant."
Hicks was "aggressive," "disparaging" and "even a bit threatening" with museum staffers in two phone conversations about the event, Sanders said. The dispute began after Hicks objected to the museum's decision to include Eddie Conway, a former Black Panther convicted in the 1970 murder of a Baltimore police officer, on a discussion panel and to honor him with a portrait.
The Baltimore Sun reported Wednesday that Hicks — a retired state employee known for helping lead anti-segregation sit-ins in Baltimore in the 1950s — was denied access to the museum by security guards. She had been scheduled to take part in the opening of "Struggle: Portraits of Civil Rights and Black Power," a photo exhibit and panel discussion to commemorate the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Sen. Lisa Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, said she received numerous calls in support of Hicks, who Gladden said had fought for the rights of every American to enter public places and enjoy free speech.
"My constituents are proud of Dr. Hicks for taking this stand," Gladden said. "In this day and age, you wouldn't think it would be necessary."
Hicks is best known for taking part in a peaceful sit-in against the Read's Drug Store at Lexington and Howard streets in 1955, one of the earliest such demonstrations in the nation.
Sanders called a news conference Thursday to respond to the article in The Sun. He said one goal of the exhibition was to show both the nonviolent and militant sides of the struggle for racial equality.
"That's why we called it 'Portraits of Civil Rights and Black Power,' " he said.
Hicks strongly objected.
"The civil rights movement was nonviolent — and the Black Panthers weren't even formed until 1966, when the main work of the movement was over with," Hicks said. "I have no idea what [Conway] would have to contribute."
Hicks and Sanders agree their conversation was heated, but their accounts differ.
Sanders said Hicks asked him to remove Conway's portrait and bar him from taking part. Hicks said she merely told Sanders she didn't want the convicted killer's portrait near her or to be seated close enough to Conway to be photographed with him.
She insists she told the director she would not interrupt Conway or interfere with his presentation.
"I didn't want anyone there to associate the actions of this man with the [peaceful] work we did in the civil rights movement," she said. "That's why I asked to be seated at the other end of the table."
Sanders said Thursday he was clear during the conversation that he was "disinviting" Hicks. Hicks disputed that.
"Why would I invite my friends, get dressed and go all the way down there if I'm not invited to participate? I'm not stupid," she said. She said it was her intention to share the nonviolent side of the struggle for civil rights — "especially if [Conway] was going to tell his story."
She went to the musuem accompanied by her son and several friends. Witnesses say a "phalanx" of private security guards blocked the 4-foot-10 activist at the door, then told her, through her son, that she was barred.
Had she not departed as asked, Sanders said, he'd have called police.
Attendees say Hicks' name was never mentioned at the opening. Her portrait is still on display in the exhibition, which continues through Jan. 19.