To be fair to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, “Black Lives Matter” — the slogan printed on T-shirts that were pulled from the gift shop of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center — is a whole lot more than a T-shirt slogan at this point. If you need an explanation of why that’s so, you haven’t been paying attention to the news of late. The question, however, is: Does the meaning of “Black Lives Matter” justify removal of T-shirts printed with the slogan from sale at a state-owned facility that celebrates the black experience in Arkansas?
The issue with the T-shirts first came to light after Arkansas Times received a tip saying the items, which had been sold in the gift shop since mid-November according to a post on the MTCC Facebook page, had been pulled from shelves at the direction of senior staff at the Department of Arkansas Heritage.
We reached out to Quantia Fletcher, interim director of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, who confirmed that the shirts had been removed week before last at the direction of her supervisor, who she identified as DAH deputy director Rebecca Burkes.
“We understand that everybody doesn’t necessarily agree with the Black Lives Matter movement,” Fletcher said. “So, even getting the shirts and getting the Black Lives Matter items, we have to think about whether or not it would be an item that was something that may cause people to feel a particular way — whether or not we were being culturally sensitive, and to make sure we’re having items in our store that kind of fit with the mission of the museum, which is to collect and preserve and educate about Arkansas African-American history.”
Fletcher said she was unaware of any complaints from visitors about the shirts, and said she personally does not find the “Black Lives Matter” slogan or campaign offensive, adding that it is part of black history.
“We tell the complete story of African-American history,” she said, “and sometimes that story isn’t always celebratory. Sometimes that story isn’t one that everybody wants to talk about. Sometimes, it’s a story that is untold, or the story that’s rarely told. So what we try to do is always think about, OK, how can we best share the story of African Americans in Arkansas? It comes in all different forms.”
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen — speaking as a pastor and community leader — told the Times he was “quite honestly amazed that the people at the Department of Arkansas Heritage don’t understand the First Amendment better than they do.” Griffen went on to say there is nothing that warrants censorship of items bearing the Black Lives Matter slogan, adding that the fact that some people might disagree with the movement or the statement doesn’t justify removing items bearing the slogan from a state-owned gift shop.
“I think it is appropriate for a museum that explores the African-American experience in Arkansas to have T-shirts saying Black Lives Matter,” he said. “It’s part of the cultural reality in which we live. The fact that people don’t like it doesn’t make it offensive. It just means it’s political speech. Black lives matter is political speech, and political speech is protected by the First Amendment.”
Griffen later took to his Facebook page to pen an open letter about the decision, encouraging Arkansans to contact Burkes and the DAH. He related a conversation with Burkes (we have not been successful in reaching Burkes for comment), saying: “Ms. Burkes also told me that a lot of the Black Lives Matter T-shirts have been sold, but that only a few were left, as if that justified removing them and banning the item from being restocked. Then she tried to talk with me about a coming exhibit, as if my concern about her decision could be mollified by attending it.”
DAH communications director Melissa Whitfield later issued a statement to Arkansas Times that said the T-shirts were removed because they were “not promoting MTCC specifically or any of its programs or exhibits. All other DAH gift shops, Old State House, Historic Arkansas Museum, and Delta Cultural Center, only sell wearable items with the specific name and museum logo or feature a specific exhibit or program.”
On Friday, after the Thursday blog post and continuing complaints from Griffen and others, DAH folded. Whitfield issued a prepared statement on behalf of department director Stacy Hurst, saying the shirts would be returned to the MTCC gift shop. Hurst said the shirts had been determined to be inconsistent with merchandise available in other museum gift shops. “Some discussion did focus on the fact that the T-shirts could be seen as controversial,” the statement from Hurst reads in part. “I regret that the removal of the T-shirts has sparked a discussion that has turned divisive, and I have asked staff at MTCC to return the T-shirts to the museum store. The Department of Arkansas Heritage will continue to put considerable resources into Mosaic Templars Cultural Center and its mission of presenting the African-American experience and why it’s important that all Arkansans know it.”
The store was sold out of the shirts as of last Friday.