GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson came home on Monday to a place he used to visit as a child – the former Woolworth Department Store on Elm Street in Greensboro.

Only now that building is the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, and other than warm memories of a young boy from Greensboro looking at toys and eating sandwiches, the building also is a monument to Robinson’s well-circulated disdain for the civil rights movement and its famous lunch counter’s place in its history.


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Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson arrives at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro. (WGHP)

Robinson, the front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor, had not seen those artifacts and testimonials before returning to the building not as Candidate Robinson but as Lt. Gov. Robinson, whose role as head of the legislature can be important in ensuring state dollars support this important piece of state history. And on Monday he waxed both nostalgically and pragmatically about the facility he had so prominently criticized.

“It brought back a lot of memories being here,” Robinson said to microphones along sun-blazed Elm Street after an hour-long tour guided by ICRM officials. “When I was a kid, I used to walk over from Logan Street. Used to come over here and used to sit at that lunch counter and eat.

“I come in and set my money down. The lady give me a hot dog, soda and French fries, and I had no idea what happened inside that building.”

When arriving in his black SUV and pulling on the jacket to his sharp blue suit, Robinson had mentioned how he had visited the store as a child and “gone into the basement to look at toys.”

Then, when he was departing, he said: “But as I got older and started going through school and start learning about the history of this place and what happened here, I was amazed at what … did occur here. And I continue to be amazed about the shifting and the … actual maturation of Greensboro, how Greensboro has grown into the city that it is.”  

His earlier comments

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, a Democrat who passed by outside before and during Robinson’s visit, perhaps would’ve been surprised at his remarks, considering his prior comments to CNN about the civil rights movement – a “so-called” movement that was a communist plot to “subvert capitalism” – and how “so many freedoms were lost.”

International Civil Rights Center and Museum (WGHP file photo)
International Civil Rights Center and Museum (WGHP file photo)

He also had criticized the sit-in by four students from North Carolina A&T – memorialized by a monument on the school’s campus – whose refusal to leave the lunch counter on Feb.  1, 1960, started a key piece of that movement as a “ridiculous premise.”

“You talk about the sit-in movement. We’re in a free market system. So we’ve got a place called Woolworth in Greensboro that won’t serve Blacks at the lunch counter. What do you do? You go down there and you sit at the lunch counter and you demand for these people to take your money. How crazy is that?” Robinson said in March 2018. “That’s not what you do in a free market system. What you do in a free-market system is you just say, ‘Hey guys, these guys don’t treat people fair. Do not eat here.’”

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson tours the civil rights museum in Greensboro. (WGHP)

Robinson didn’t eat those words in his visit on Monday, but he came close, saying he saw the value in the facility and to the city and the state, comments that appeared to be an example of why museum founder Earl Jones calls the tour “transformative.”

“You know, I mentioned … when I was in here that North Carolina has always been somewhat moderate as a Southern city,” Robinson said. ”And I think it’s great that this … city holds the distinction for starting the movement that changed the face of the entire nation, so it’s an honor to be here today and it’s more of an honor to be called a citizen of Greensboro, where a movement like this started.

“And this is a place we need to continue to fund and bring young people to remind them of how far we’ve come. And to remind them of what we can do in the future, if we continue to work together as good people.

 “Honestly, I didn’t see a whole lot of stuff in there that I didn’t know. What I got to see was how it was actually, how it’s actually laid out and … more to the point, just being inside of a building that was part of my history was the best part of it. And knowing that we had the foresight and we had the wisdom to preserve this place and make sure the future generations get to come down here.”

What they said

Observers have pointed to Robinson’s criticisms as confusing and contradictory. Yes, he is a controversial social critic and staunch conservative, but he also is trying to be the first Black man and fourth Republican to be governor of North Carolina. He has lived his life in Guilford County.

NC Treasurer Dale Folwell, one of two other men with connections to Greensboro who are among the four Republicans running against Robinson – former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker is the other – offered his insights about Robinson’s comments.

“The last time I visited CRM, it was to return $1,000 from NCCash,” Folwell told WGHP. “His visit seems to be the latest example of something he was against that now he’s for. Voters are smarter than that.”

Said Walker: “I think it’s great and applaud him for doing so. Hopefully, this will change Mr. Robinson’s mind about the significance of the civil rights movement and help him reconsider his position on banning history and science in elementary classrooms.” 

The campaign for the lone Democrat in the field, Attorney General Josh Stein, distributed a quote from state Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Greensboro), whose district includes the museum.

“As a [Bennett College] Belle and [NC A&T] Aggie graduate myself, I am immeasurably proud of the North Carolina A&T four, whose bravery and peaceful protest made history and sparked a movement to desegregate restaurants and other public accommodations,” she said in the release. “Mark Robinson’s comments criticizing the civil rights movements and the sit-ins are an insult to the African-American community and the people who fought so hard for these freedoms. No matter how many times he visits our wonderful Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, we won’t forget his ugly comments.”

Robinson’s spokesperson, Michael Lonergan, points out that one of the sit-in participants – but not one of the Greensboro Four – Clarence Henderson, has endorsed Robinson’s campaign for governor.

How it all happened

Given that dichotomy, there was curiosity about what led to Robinson’s visit. He mentioned his friendship with Jim Kee, a former member of the Greensboro City Council and current GOP candidate for state auditor, and community leader and former congressional candidate Vernon Robinson.

Guilford County Board of Commissioners Chair Skip Alston (WGHP File Photo)

But the founders of the museum and its passionate leaders are two staunch Democrats, Guilford County Board of Commissioners Chair Melvin “Skip” Alston and former council member and state legislator Jones.

Although Alford was present on Monday, it was Jones who played the host role for the event. Kee and Vernon Robinson toured with Mark Robinson, as did a handful of others.

Jones said he had been trying to arrange a visit with Robinson and that politicians of any party “all use us politically.” Vice President Kamala Harris and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minne.) are two of the more recent and prominent visitors. About six weeks before the election in 2016, the museum declined to allow former President Donald Trump to have an event there. Robinson has endorsed Trump (and vice versa).

Vice President Kamala Harris sits at the lunch counter in the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro.(Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Jones told WGHP that he had invited NC House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) for a visit and lunch and that they had talked about how to get Robinson, as leader of the state Senate, to visit, because Jones appreciates the millions of dollars that the General Assembly has contributed to the museum’s operations and the facility’s plans to expand.


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“When individuals tour the museum, it is our hope that they will leave with a deeper understanding of the civil rights movement and its national and international impact on fostering equality, democracy and human rights,” Jones said in a prepared statement.

“A visit to the museum is not merely an encounter with the past. It is an expedition into the heart of human resilience and determination.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the role Clarence Henderson played in the sit-in movement.