GREENSBORO, N.C. – The Rev. Al Sharpton (search) took a day off from his presidential campaign in Michigan (search) to honor civil rights pioneers at a fund-raiser for a planned downtown civil rights museum.
The $9 million International Civil Rights Museum (search), expected to open next February, will be housed in the shell of the old Woolworth building.
Four black students from North Carolina A&T sat down at the store's whites-only lunch counter on Feb. 1, 1960, and insisted on being served. Their actions sparked the sit-in movement.
"If the price had not been paid here ... we wouldn't be thinking about the possibility of a black person running for president," Sharpton said Friday night before the $100-a-plate Sit-In Movement banquet.
Sharpton was the event's keynote speaker, and received the Alston-Jones International Civil and Human Rights Award. Past recipients include civil rights icon Rosa Parks and former South African president Nelson Mandela.
He said the museum is necessary to remind blacks that "the journey was not of natural attrition."
"We need a museum so that children will know we didn't just get here of luck and circumstance," Sharpton said. "We act like, by some force of nature, things got better. We are where we are tonight because some people risked their lives."
He criticized some members of the black community, saying they have acted like hoodlums, waving their "bling-bling."
"Black culture was never about how low we could go, it was no matter how low we would go, we would reach high anyhow," he said.
The Brooklyn native was in elementary school when the sit-ins began, but he remembered similar treatment while traveling through the South with his parents in 1959.
"A man said, 'We don't serve y'all here,"' Sharpton said. "It was that night ... I learned what racism was. It was my father having to explain to me and my sister why he couldn't talk a guy into selling us a hamburger."
Sharpton said Friday -- the eve of weekend caucuses in Michigan, Maine and Washington state -- was only the third day he had not campaigned since joining the race for the Democratic nomination.
He managed to include some campaign rhetoric, criticizing President Bush for cutting veterans services while sending additional soldiers to Iraq.
"Saying it didn't matter because (Saddam) Hussein is a bad guy is not enough," he said.