Tuesday, July 31, 2001

Freedom Center could be our lifeline

        Think Selma, Ala. Did you picture moss-draped trees? Gracious white-columned homes? A historic rural town, a major supply depot during the Civil War? Maybe you thought about its official flower (the camellia) or the annual horseshoe tournament.


        Well, how about tear gas and nightsticks, bricks and bottles? Even if you don't specifically remember Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when Alabama state troopers and a sheriff's posse gassed and battered voting rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, most of us hear the word “Selma” and think racial violence.

        Of course, that was a long time ago.

Bad news travels fast

        Selma is ancient history for the Dawson's Creek audience. Regis Philbin is Monty Hall now. “Is that your final answer?” has replaced “Do you want what's behind curtain No. 3?”

        Pop culture shortcuts. Icons. A you-know-what-I-mean instant image. And maybe the heat is off Selma. It has been pretty hot here in Cincinnati, home of three days of rioting and a growing reputation for violence and lawlessness. At least Selma happened before the ravenous 24-hour TV news cycle. Before talk radio and the Internet.

        Bad news really gets around these days. Just ask Gary Condit, the obscure California congressman who now is the emblem for Washington sleaze. Once you get a reputation, as my mother told me in high school, it's hard to shake.

        The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center could be our best chance to recover our lifeline, in Millionaire-speak.

        Construction is to begin in about a year, and the center is scheduled to open in 2004. President and CEO Ed Rigaud says they've raised $66 million of the $110 million goal. Susan Redman-Rengstorf, vice president of development and public affairs for the center, says Eastman Kodak, Ford and Verizon have come forward with pledges since the April riots. “It gives me hope that the bigger message is possible,” she says.

An institutional fix?

        Nearly 70 percent of Greater Cincinnati respondents believe the Freedom Center can help race relations here, according to a study conducted by the center in June. Maybe it's wishful thinking. It would be nice if this museum would solve our problems. The center is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors every year from all 50 states and around the world.

        That's good, right?

        It would give us a chance to present them with a better view of ourselves than the one they've seen on national television and in their local newspapers. To do that, we might have to join Ed at some of the meetings. We might even have to move occasionally out of our “comfort zones.”

        Reader Kathy Morley of Ryland, Ky., wrote that “most of us won't be on the commissions and groups that deal directly with what can or should be done, but we can all be more civil and kind in our everyday dealings. Small gestures that can change the climate of the community in very direct, very personal ways.”

        Or we could ignore each other, turn our heads from anybody who doesn't look like us or think like us. We could keep our fingers crossed. We could stick our heads in the sand, simultaneously mooning outsiders who dare to criticize us. We can twist ourselves into a pretzel of denial.

        Not a pretty picture.

        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/pulfer.


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