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A (loud) dissenting voice [Editorial]

It's more than a little ironic that a show about the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s that opened recently at the Reginald L. Lewis Museum of African-American History has stirred more controversy over the way museum officials treated one of the movement pioneers honored in the exhibition than over the contents of the show itself. That's surely not the kind of publicity the show's creators wanted — or needed — and the sad thing is that they could have easily avoided it if the museum hadn't handled the matter so ineptly.

As The Sun's Jonathan Pitts reported yesterday, an icon of Baltimore's early civil rights movement, Helena Hicks, was denied entrance to the museum last week after she questioned its decision to put a convicted murderer on a discussion panel about the struggle for equal rights. Ms. Hicks, whose picture appears in the show, had been scheduled to participate in a panel discussion at the opening of "Struggle: Portraits of Civil Rights and Black Power," the museum's new photography exhibition.

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But the day before the event, Ms. Hicks called the museum to object to the inclusion on the panel of Eddie Conway, a former Black Panther leader who spent 44 years in prison for the 1970 murder of a Baltimore police officer. Ms. Hicks, however, apparently took issue with the Panthers' militant tactics, which included arming themselves against police brutality, believing they made the group unworthy of being honored as part of the nonviolent struggle led by Martin Luther King Jr.

Museum officials say Ms. Hicks expressed her opinion so vigorously during the call that they became alarmed she might be disruptive if allowed to participate in the discussion. It's unclear whether museum director Skipp Sanders told her then that her presence was no longer welcome at the event or whether she only learned that the following day when she arrived at the museum and was turned away by security guards. In either case, the decision to exclude a voice the museum itself acknowledged as a pioneer in the struggle for a more inclusive society struck a sour note that ended up making the museum look unworthy of the mission entrusted to it.

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The irony, of course, is that the relative contribution to the struggle for equal justice made by King's nonviolent movement and the more radical militant groups that followed is still a hotly debated topic. And where better to carry out that discussion than in Maryland's museum of African-American history? The museum is the one venue where all voices ought to have a chance to be heard and where deeply felt feelings about the past — and the present — can be freely expressed. Anything less inevitably makes the institution look petty, intolerant of differences and, worst of all, irrelevant to today's concerns.

The Lewis museum has no one to blame but itself for the controversy it has created, and it's not just African-Americans who should be shocked by how poorly this episode was handled by the director and his staff. Because the Lewis receives substantial state subsidies to sustain its operations, everyone has a stake in seeing it carry out its mission successfully. The board needs to sit down for a talk with Mr. Sanders and explain to him that while people can seriously differ in their views, so long as there's no shouting or physical intimidation of others the expression of opposing opinions is not necessarily a bad thing and in fact ought to be welcomed.

We have a hard time believing that Ms. Hicks, who is 80 years old and diminutive in stature, posed a threat to anything or anyone at the museum that would justify refusing to allow her on the premises. At the very least it strikes us as unseemly to turn someone away from an event they've been invited to attend merely because they raised their voice over the phone or seemed to be making a nuisance of themselves. The civil rights struggle of the 1960s was won by people who weren't afraid to speak up and who deliberately made nuisances of themselves until their demands for equal justice were met. On the 50th anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, those voices still deserve to be heard.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

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