Younger readers and readers outside the southern United States may not completely grasp my preoccupation with the Jim Crow segregation era “sit-ins” over the last several months. These non-violent acts of civil disobedience in the 1950s and 60s challenged the “separate, but equal” provisions for public facilities that were upheld in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson US Supreme Court decision and continued more than a decade after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Buses, trains, waiting terminals, restrooms, water fountains, and areas of private businesses were kept separate for whites and blacks (usually labeled as “colored” to ensure uniform discrimination against African Americans of mixed ancestry.). This US National Park Service website provides a sampling of such laws from various states.
The 50th anniversary of the most famous of these sit-ins in Greensboro, NC, has given the opportunity for today’s major news outlets to revisit these days and examine what has and hasn’t changed, especially in light of the election of the first black US president (who, incidentally, wrote this letter for the Greensboro News-Record a couple of weeks ago).
So after writing last night’s post about Christine Hardman’s essay on the February 1960 visit to Durham by Martin Luther King, I was delighted to see this morning’s local fishwrapper celebrate Ms. Virginia Williams as “Tar Heel of the Week,” a weekly feature of the News & Observer that acknowledges individuals and their various contributions to the state. Ms. Williams is one of two surviving students from the earlier and increasingly-appreciated 1957 Royal Ice Cream sit-in in Durham, a story I wrote about in November when the sit-in site was dedicated as an historical landmark. (To the right is a photo I was honored to take with her on the day of the dedication.).
The article by Michael Biesecker entitled, “1957 sit-in began a life of activism,” provides background on Ms. Williams, a sharecropper’s daughter from eastern North Carolina who came to Durham for work when she was 18. Ms. Williams spoke of her experiences yesterday at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh following the screening of the award-winning documentary, “February One: The Story of the Greensboro Four.”
As with anything we post here, the entire article is well worth your time but I found this passage particularly poignant, describing the immediate aftermath of the Royal Ice Cream protest:
Four squad cars arrived with eight officers – pistols and billy clubs hanging from their belts. They told the protesters the manager wanted them to leave.
“They were very courteous and never handcuffed us,” Williams remembers about the arrest. “When we got to the station, one of the officers said to me, ‘If I was your daughter, I’d take you across my lap and spank you.'”
Without missing a beat, Williams replied: “If I were your daughter, I wouldn’t be here for this.”
Ms. Williams, the young people would have just one word for that line.