Home Commentary Op-ed GOING TO JAIL



The whole concept of the Civil Rights Movement was Martin Luther King’’s development of the principles of non-violent civil disobedience. In practice, groups of people (often northern college students and local teenagers) demonstrated about issues, boycotted businesses, and spotlighted the Jim Crow laws still in use by sitting in at restaurants, reversing the seating practices in public areas and doing anything that would draw the attention of the media.
King wrote: "When for decades you have been able to make a man compromise his manhood by threatening him with a cruel and unjust punishment, and when suddenly he turns upon you and says: "Punish me, I do not deserve it. But because I do not deserve it, I will accept it so that the world will know that I am right and you are wrong." You hardly know what to do. You feel defeated and secretly ashamed. You know that this man is as good a man as you are; that from a mysterious source he has found the courage and the conviction to meet physical force with soul force."
When I joined the group working in Williamston, I had to go through non-violent training sessions. New volunteers would march around in a circle carrying placards like practicing for a demonstration. Trainers would yell nasty words at them, hit them with newspapers, spit on them and generally do the things that locals would probably do on the street. We were supposed to learn to NOT react.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and SCLC developed strategies equal to the best generals’’. Their sophisticated use of the media overwhelmed the small towns. We didn’t march if the cameras were not rolling. We needed them to keep us safe. In the spotlight of the six o’’clock news, the local powers soon became aware of how badly they looked if they used dogs, tear gas and water hoses, and dragged our limp bodies into patrol cars.
Reporters and especially cameramen were the real heroes of the civil rights movement. They traveled alone, they didn’t have friends in town, they didn’t have support groups; they didn’t even know they were the enemy.
Martin Luther King, Jr. practiced "pocketbook strategy" to effect change. A town has no choice but to change practices when it is bankrupt whether the people agree or not. We filled the jails of Williamston as fast as we could. The cost of jailing us that year was greater than their annual budget for the police department. A business will change its policies when it is losing money. A candidate will change his stripes when he can’’t get votes after blacks are able to register. Laws will change when enough people feel the effect of the bad law in their pockets.
On my second trip to the south, I was greeted with more than usual enthusiasm. I was barely out of the car, when Golden said, "Oh, great, Carol, you’’ve been here before and you know the lay of the land. We’ve got to have an adult woman in the jail –– too many teenagers in there by themselves. I’ll give you the day to get the kinks out and go in tonight. Anyway we’re short on houses for you to stay in."
"Gee, thanks, Golden. Nice to see you too."
After a hearty meal of southern fried chicken, mashed potatoes, coleslaw and pie, five of us (three northern students and two local teenagers –– three black, two white) piled into a car and went out to dinner. We went to the Shamrock Restaurant, which was attached to the motel on the interstate at the edge of town. Because it was on a federal highway it fell under the jurisdiction of federal law but still practiced the local Jim Crow laws. (The use of federal laws to change local laws, a re-run of the debate over federal vs. states' rights from the Civil War, was the basis of most of the legal action of the Civil Rights Movement.)
We drove into the parking lot and went into the restaurant. I have no idea whether it was a good restaurant or not, I never knew anyone who got to eat there! As we sat down at a table we noticed a deputy sheriff seated at the counter. Somehow he knew we were coming. .
This restaurant had been hit before so they knew the routine. The rules of the game were that we asked three times and the manager denied three times; so we played this all through. In a very few minutes, another policeman joined the deputy and they informed us that we were under arrest. They did not handcuff us –– they simply told us to go out and get in the patrol car. A reporter took a picture, as the five of us were crammed into the back of the car. He was later roughed up and his camera broken.
When we got to the courthouse we were officially arrested. The sheriff tried to convince me that I should go home to my daddy. They did not ask for ID, you could have easily given an alias. Many locals used several names so they could get arrested over and over again. Our bags were not checked; I had packed books, candy bars, clean underwear, notes for the kids, toothbrush, etc. etc. We were never fingerprinted. This was significant because it took years for these sit-in cases to go through the courts and in the meantime I became a teacher and had to have fingerprint clearance.
Then we went to jail. There were six students with me in an L shaped cell about 20X25. The girls had the three bunks and I got the single cot beside the toilet. The beds were metal with a single, thin, stinky mat and an army blanket. The shower in the corner didn’t work. The toilet was set in the wall beside the door and you had to hope the jailer didn’t choose the same moment you chose, to open the door.
I spent three days in the jail. We sang freedom songs, read stories, told our life histories, shared girl laughs, banged on the pipe and yelled at the guys in the cell below, bribed the guard to get us candy bars, enjoyed visits from people who stood below the window and held our noses and ate powdered eggs and cold food. And we got very bored.
We were bailed out with the backing of local farmers' land, teachers' homes and ministers' savings. My case along with thousands of others was dismissed by the Supreme Court almost ten years later. King referred to those of us, who were arrested or marched or sat in, as his ‘‘warriors for peace’’.
Part three: Terror and tricks


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