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Calling it an antidote for hatred and bigotry that boiled over in Charlottesville, Va., Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and the California Museum announced the Aug. 26 opening of a permanent exhibition that celebrates diversity and understanding and stands against racism and other forms of discrimination.
The opening of the Unity Center, which will take up a third of the museum at 10th and O streets, “could not be more timely – it comes in the midst of a national crisis,” said Steinberg. “The center and efforts like it are an antidote to Charlottesville.”
The Unity Center was inspired by the 1999 “Summer of Hate,” when two white supremacist brothers, Benjamin and Tyler Williams, set fires at B’nai Israel, Congregation Beth Shalom and Kenesset Israel Torah Center, all in the Sacramento area, causing nearly $3 million in damage. The blazes, among the worst acts of anti-Semitism in U.S. history, were followed by the firebombing of a Sacramento abortion clinic and the murder of a gay couple – Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder – while they slept in their Happy Valley home in rural Shasta County. The Williams brothers pleaded guilty to the arson attacks as well as the slayings, claiming that homosexuality is a sin they had to stamp out.
More than 4,000 Sacramentans across race, ethnicity and religion rallied against the hate crimes, and Steinberg, then an assemblyman, and other community leaders and donors vowed to build a Unity Center that would become an international destination. “We were going to develop our own site at 16th and N and then were hit by the recession, but in my last year in the Senate I was able to get a $2 million appropriation for the California Museum to partner with us,” Steinberg said.
The Unity Center addresses hate crimes, racial profiling and religious freedom, immigration, civil rights, equality and gender identity. The “Facing Assumptions” exhibit allows visitors to immerse themselves in conversations between members of marginalized groups including African Americans, Latino immigrants and transgender individuals, who share personal experiences facing common stereotypes and misconceptions. “Courage to Act” teaches visitors to learn what role bystanders can play in standing up to harassment, hate, intolerance and bullying. The center also offers examples of Californians past and present who have successfully stood up for their rights and for the rights of others using tools such as art and peaceful civil disobedience.
Over the weekend, several hundred white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, where they were confronted by counterdemonstrators. One woman was killed and 19 others were injured when a car driven by a white supremacist plowed into them.
“This will change hearts and minds of many who don’t understand why even being neutral on such issues is not an acceptable choice,” Steinberg said. “Evil is just below the surface, and we must educate young people about the dangers of spoken words and the dangers that can come with not standing up and speaking out every time somebody threatens the fragile progress we have all made.”
More than 175,000 people a year are expected to visit the Unity Center, which includes 4,000 square feet of galleries and a classroom, said Richard S. Costigan II, chairman of the museum’s Board of Trustees. “It comes at a time tolerance and unity are needed more than ever,” he said in a statement.
To further the Unity Center’s learning experiences, the museum will also offer educational programs, hosting elementary and high school students.
On Saturday, Aug. 26, the museum will host the Unity Center Block Party, including free admission for all visitors from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; a civil rights panel with longtime United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta, Stuart Milk of the Harvey Milk Foundation and California state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, moderated by CNN’s Lisa Ling from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. At noon, Steinberg will address the grand opening, calling it “a dream come true.”