Home Commentary Op-ed GOING SOUTH

GOING SOUTH

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My fifteen year old cousin, Nate, wanted to know, "How does a young woman who never saw a black person until she was seventeen get involved in the Civil Rights Movement?" (I grew up in a totally segregated rural area of northeastern Ohio.) "Where did you get the interest and the passion?" Good questions that brought back a lot of memories; resulting in this writing.
My first awakening experience came in the summer of 1962 when a campus Christian group held a conference at a lake resort in Wisconsin. I was with a racially mixed group of college students who went into a drug store in the small town to have lunch at the counter. The black students were refused service and told to leave the store. The whole conference spent the rest of our time discussing Civil Rights.
My senior year at Bowling Green State College in Ohio, I was asked to room with a black student. The college was about to lose federal funding because they had no integrated student housing. So Mattie Hayes and I roomed together for one semester and in that one room was the beginning of a great friendship and justification for federal funding!
After graduation I went to a seminary north of Boston to study religion. One of my professors, Harvey Cox, was a well-known theologian involved in the organization of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. Martin Luther King. In the fall of 1963 he and five other Boston area ministers were arrested for demonstrating in a small town in eastern North Carolina.
The call went out for students to go south. As we were getting organized, John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. In spite of a moratorium declared by the civil rights organizations for the mourning period, twelve of us made the fourteen-hour trek from Boston to North Carolina in three cars. I was wedged between two other students in the back of a Volkswagen Beetle. We had replaced the back of the seat with our duffel bags.
The trip may have paralyzed our bodies but it was an eye-opener. Two of the five students in our car were black and we vowed that we were not going to eat in segregated facilities. After we passed the Mason Dixon line we had to give that up real fast. The black students could only get food at restaurants if they went around to the back window so we all did that. Finding bathroom facilities was particularly difficult.
We staggered out of our cars at the home of a young black woman in Williamston, N.C. before 7 a.m. Andrew Young was asleep on the couch and Jessie Jackson was taking a shower. By the time we got our much needed coffee, a man arrived to 'read the water meter' and count the heads and check out the mixed up colors of these horrible northerners who had come into his little town where life had been just fine until we got there!
Williamston was a small city of 6,000 people –– about half black. It is located in an area of North Carolina that resembles the deep south with the chief industries being peanuts, lumber and tobacco. It was considered one of the worst sites for racial discrimination and it was felt that when integration came to Williamston, as the county seat of Martin County, it would also come to all of North Carolina.
Black sections were spread throughout the town and evidenced by lack of sidewalks and sub-standard housing. The schools were still completely segregated although it had been ten years since the Supreme Court ruling on Brown Vs. the Board of Education. All restaurants, lunch counters and other public accommodations such as the swimming pool and library were "white only".
In the spring of 1963, the SCLC sent a field secretary, Golden Frinks, to organize school boycotts, public demonstrations (resulting in a city ordinance banning them), sit-ins and an all out boycott of the downtown stores. Williamston had the usual long record of police brutality toward blacks, with beatings, cattle prods and general harassment playing a large part in every demonstration. Little progress was being made in spite of the establishment of a mixed race "Citizens Council".
The Ku Klux Klan was active in town and frequently held rallies. The major source of employment was the peanut factory, which was owned by the mayor. Many people had lost their jobs for participating in the movement or trying to register to vote. Surplus food distributions had been cut off and the welfare lists were drastically reduced.
The Boston area ministers answered a distress call by sending food and clothing and generally adopting the area. We were the first outsiders who were not clergy to come into Williamston in what they considered ‘‘large numbers’’ and they were extremely threatened by our presence.
Part two: Sit-in at a restaurant and going to jail

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