CIVIL RIGHTS IN COLUMBIA: WHY OUR STORY MATTERS

Does 1963 still resonate with the younger generation?

cclick@thestate.comSeptember 29, 2013 

  • 50 years later: Sharing Columbia’s civil rights story

    Columbia is one of seven Southern cities commemorating the pivotal year of 1963, when segregation’s barriers finally began to fall. Throughout 2013, The State newspaper will share stories of people, sites and events in Columbia’s civil rights story as part of a monthly series.

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Does 1963 matter anymore?

Does it matter that the city of Columbia was, five decades ago, begrudgingly removing the “white” and “colored” signs that had designated place and role in society?

Does it matter that the lunch counters that were scenes of such fervent sit-ins and demonstrations no longer exist but in memory?

That people stood on city streets with homemade signs that declared “Freedom now” and “Help Stop Discrimination” even as whites responded with their own fearful signs that said, “Blacks have freedom, don’t take away ours”?

Organizers with Columbia SC 63 think so. Nearly a year ago, the city of Columbia, led by Mayor Steve Benjamin, embarked on the Columbia SC 63 “Why Our Story Matters” project that was designed to reveal some of the hidden stories surrounding the civil rights movement. Columbia is one of seven southern cities participating in the year-long project.

Since then, men and women, now in their retirement years, have stepped forward to talk about their experiences at lunch counters and at State House demonstrations. They have recalled the mundane and the momentous, recognized themselves in old black-and-white photographs, and realized, belatedly, that they were part of a great army of everyday heroes.

There have been exhibitions and tours, and commemorations of anniversaries long forgotten.

But do their stories and their struggles resonate with those who have no memory of the days of segregation?

Yes, said Lauren Harper, a University of South Carolina student who participated in last week’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of integration at USC. She hopes to engage in some of the city’s events, seeing it as a way to educate herself about the civil rights movement beyond the nationally known flashpoints of Birmingham and Montgomery.

Harper said her “wow” moment came when she saw enlarged photographs of Columbia sit-ins in what was once a bustling downtown. Black students were crowded into drug store lunch counters or walking Main Street that was chock-a-block full of thriving businesses. She discovered then that her college town had a richer 20th-century history than previously believed.

“I don’t think students really know about all that,” said Harper, a sophomore from Rock Hill who is secretary of multicultural affairs in USC’s student government. “Especially with the (USC) anniversary, it puts things in perspective.”

People born after 1960s have no point of reference for a southern society that instituted separate schools, separate neighborhoods and separate parks; offered limited jobs for minorities; and operated under a code that ensured whites always came first.

Lacey Robinson, a 17-year-old Ridge View High School senior and student government president, said, in many ways, the civil rights movement seems a remote historical period to today’s young people. But she believes it is important to learn the history because of its connections to today.

She delved into the period in her 11th grade AP U.S. history class. She learned about significant national benchmarks in the struggle, as well as South Carolina events like the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, a confrontation between police and students at S.C. State that left three dead and 28 wounded.

Robinson said she was also lucky to have a grandmother who is an African-American history scholar and taught her about the history.

“I feel like it was a long time ago but the things they were able to accomplish and the changes they made are quite prominent today,” Robinson said. Now, she said, she feels confident that when she applies to colleges this fall – including her top choice of Emory University – she will be judged on her academic and extracurricular accomplishments.

Finding the city’s history

Bobby Donaldson, a USC history professor who has acted as consultant to the mayor on Columbia SC 63, said the project has given lie to the “notion that not much happened here and the real drama happened elsewhere.”

Columbia was the scene of innumerable downtown sit-ins and protests over segregation in the early 1960s, and was the launch point for key legal cases that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Simon Bouie and Talmedge J. Neal, two college students active in the movement, slipped into a booth at the Eckerd’s drug store in downtown Columbia on March 14, 1960, violating the store’s longstanding policy that African-Americans could purchase goods from the store but could not sit and eat in the restaurant.

Their conviction on trespass, upheld by the state Supreme Court, was appealed to the nation’s high court, where it was argued in October 1963. A year later, the high court ruled in the Bouie case and several other sit-in cases, including the Columbia case of Charles Barr, Milton Greene and others who sat in at the Taylor Street Pharmacy, that such policies violated the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Raised knowing their place in the segregated South, the students were united, in part because their adult leaders – including the Rev. I. DeQuincey Newman and attorneys Matthew Perry and Lincoln Jenkins – believed that there was legal, if not social, momentum for change. Many participated in a 1961 State House march that resulted in a Supreme Court decision, Edwards v. South Carolina, guaranteeing the right of protesters to peacefully assemble and engage in free speech.

“It was assumed that the culture would change and that we would be the change makers. We would be the ones who brought on the change,” Doris Glymph Greene, widow of Milton Greene, said earlier this year. “There would be, I won’t call it a revolution, an evolution, you know.

Mostly it was evolutionary – and slow to bear fruit.

It took two years before USC accepted the application of Henrie Monteith Treadwell who, along with James. L. Solomon and Robert G. Anderson Jr., integrated USC in September 1963. Harvey Gantt of Charleston had integrated Clemson the previous January.

Raymond Weston wanted to go to USC, too. He and fellow S.C. State student Lloyd Williams applied in the spring of 1960, three years before a federal judge ruled USC must admit blacks. The pair were politely turned away with the excuse that the registrar’s office had run out of applications.

He’s still waiting for that application, he said, but harbors no bitterness. He thinks he had a small role in changing Jim Crow.

“Everybody, to my knowledge, had a part to play in trying to achieve certain things,” he said. Driving to Columbia to confront the white power structure inside a university office was his part to play.

Farewell to the ’60s, hello to a new movement?

While the 1960s movement freed up opportunities for higher education and career advancement, issues of jobs and education inequities are still potent in the African-American community, particularly for low-income families who struggle to pay for college, said James Sulton Jr., a retired educator who returned to his native Orangeburg after a career in higher education that took him around the country.

But he said he believes today’s young people have the tools to be as effective as the 1960s generation.

“Kids are terrifically smart these days,” Sulton said. “I would not shortchange them on their ability or wiliness to connect the dots. I think they understand class division as any sociologist might. I think they understand the primacy of race, better than a historian could make them understand.”

What’s different now, Sulton said, is the lack of a systematic framework for young people to drive change. Sulton’s late father, James Sulton Sr., was an NAACP leader in Orangeburg and the younger Sulton watched as he enlisted young people in marches and boycotts.

“The channels that existed in the 1960s are not the same anymore,” said Sulton, who as a young boy attended the 1963 March on Washington with his father. “I’m thinking how purposeful the movement was.”

But the outcome of that movement is visible every day in downtown Columbia. Where once mainly white professionals peopled city offices, law firms and businesses, blacks and whites now mingle in white shoe law firms and city hall.

Columbia attorney Bakari Middleton, a product of Duke University and Georgetown University Law Center, says he sometimes eats lunch on a bench at the State House “in shade provided by Ben Tillman’s statue.” Benjamin Ryan “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman was one of the state’s most virulent white supremacists and as governor, presided over the 1895 constitutional convention that eliminated gains blacks had made since the Civil War.

Sitting there, Middleton said in an email, “gives me some perspective on the undeniable progress SC has made. For me, the celebration of ’63 has been a year-long, living monument of what it took to escape the shadow of darker times. That’s important when all my generation has known is the light.”

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