The city of Columbia is joining six other Southern cities in commemorating the pivotal year of 1963, when segregation’s barriers finally began to fall amid protests and demonstrations, court battles and, in many places, unrestrained violence.
The flashpoint for that violence was Birmingham, Ala., when a bomb thrown into the 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963 killed four young girls and, finally, stunned an appalled nation into action.
That seminal crime — coming nine years after the Supreme Court decision desegregating public schools, eight years after the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and two years after the Freedom Riders had barreled into the South to test racial laws on interstate travel — finally set the nation on a path toward political, social and economic justice.
Columbia’s story was less raw and avoided the bloody outcomes of Alabama and Mississippi.
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But Mayor Steve Benjamin said Columbia’s narrative is compelling enough to generate the kind of tourism that draws visitors to Charleston, Birmingham and Montgomery, cities that have showcased their African-American history and civil rights struggles.
In collaboration with USC and Historic Columbia Foundation, “We are starting to piece together the texture of this great city,” Benjamin said last week.
The mayor envisions walking tours, permanent historic markers, and “the largest archeological dig of an African-American site that any city in the country has ever tried” at the Modjeska Simkins House, Mann-Simons site and other urban areas, to entice visitors to explore Columbia’s past.
“All these things are a chance to connect Columbia’s past and present with the future, but it’s also a chance to leave a lasting legacy,” Benjamin said, “recognizing that cultural tourism is the greatest economic opportunity that a city like ours has.”
The theme for the seven-city commemoration, “50 Years Forward,” aims to not only resurrect forgotten moments in history but also assess the South’s progress toward racial equality. In Columbia, the theme for the year-long commemoration will be “Our Story Matters.”
The initiative has a $210,000 budget, which will be administered through Historic Columbia Foundation.
Besides Columbia and Birmingham, other cities participating in the year-long observance include Selma, Ala., Montgomery, Ala., Jackson, Miss., Memphis, Tenn., and Washington, D.C.
Unearthing Columbia’s civil rights history
When Benjamin was invited by the Birmingham major to join in the commemoration of 1963, he drew on his own interest in history, fostered during his undergraduate years at the University of South Carolina.
Benjamin grew up in Queens, N.Y., a child of South Carolina-born parents who made him appreciate American history, the history of the American South and the civil rights movement. But he knew little about the fabric of individual stories of the city that he now calls home, stories that he worries “may be lost to time.”
When he entered USC, Benjamin immersed himself in history courses taught by professors such as Willie Harriford, the first director of USC’s African-American Studies Program, and the late Grace McFadden, a pioneering African-American professor and oral history historian.
Through the years, he began to make pilgrimages to Randolph Cemetery, the resting place for black Reconstruction-era lawmakers and others who were part of South Carolina’s early civil rights struggle.
Like most Columbians with more than a passing interest in history, he was aware of the major architects of integration: James Hinton, who as president of the state’s NAACP from 1941-58 built the civil rights organization into a formidable force to challenge segregation; the late Rev. I. DeQuincey Newman, Hinton’s successor who built a small army of college students to man picket lines and went on to become the state’s first black senator; and the late U.S. District Judge Matthew Perry, who challenged segregation in the courts and represented hundreds of civil rights protesters.
There was retired Supreme Court Justice Ernest Finney, a renowned civil rights lawyer and the first African-American to sit on the modern Supreme Court; and Modjeska Simkins, a fiery public health official and NAACP leader who was tarred by the white establishment as a Communist.
As a graduate of USC, Benjamin also was keenly aware of the integration of the university in September 1963 by Henri Monteith, Robert G. Anderson, and James L. Solomon Jr., and the U.S. Supreme Court case, Edwards v. South Carolina, that cleared the way for peaceful protests at the State Capitol.
The integration of USC was momentous for Columbia and a university that had previously prohibited blacks from even walking on campus.
But Benjamin wanted to dig deeper. He turned to USC history and African-American studies professor Bobby Donaldson to uncover stories that may not have been told previously and to find people who may have been part of the story but never garnered headlines.
“Initially, it was what occurred in Columbia 50 years ago,” Donaldson said. But an advisory committee that included black leaders who had been part of the state’s civil rights moments cautioned that one year wasn’t enough.
“They all said, that was a critical year, we know that, but let’s not lose sight of the legacies that came after that,” Donaldson said. They also wanted to acknowledge those who, in the 1940s and 1950s, set the stage for the fulfillment of the movement.
“So we really expanded the timelines and said we will look at the 1963 milestones, but we will look back and forward,” Donaldson said.
Protests and picket lines
Columbia was a city that had no “huge flashpoint,” comparable to Birmingham and Selma. But Donaldson said the city is brimming with stories of protests and picket lines, some of which have been acknowledged and others essentially lost to memory.
The sit-ins at eight lunch counters occupied the lives of hundreds of college students at Benedict College and Allen University, Columbia’s two historically black colleges. The students walked the nine blocks from their campuses at noon each day to occupy counter stools and order food.
They would be rebuffed until August 1962, suffering taunts and, in one case, a stabbing, but, slowly, the barriers fell. White and black civic and business leaders, led by the late Mayor Lester Bates, also had been in behind-the-scenes negotiations to integrate the downtown business district without violence.
Still, the change wasn’t easy and met with steady resistance.
A photograph taken by a photographer with The State newspaper in September 1963 shows black protesters carrying American flags and signs that call for “Freedom Now” and “1-2-3-4, We want to walk in the front door.” Whites marched against the flow, carrying Confederate flags and warning “Negroes have freedom. Do not take away ours.”
The scenes of smartly dressed protesters in front of long-closed storefronts seem dated, and to today’s young people, somewhat irrelevant now that they know the outcome of the civil rights story.
“Since it did happen, most of the kids believe it was going to happen and it would just be a matter of time,” said Harriford, who moved to South Carolina in 1971 to head USC’s African-American Studies program.
But that inevitability wasn’t apparent to the thousands of protesters who took to the streets in Columbia and throughout the South. Even if they weren’t beaten — and many were — they carried psychological scars from decades of economic and social injustices.
Harriford, 78, who grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, couldn’t attend his own high school graduation party in 1952 because the dance hall they chose, just across the river in Sioux City, S.D., would not admit blacks. He was turned away at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant near the Truman Library where he had worked as an archivist, even though he had dined there with former President Truman months earlier.
But when he tells his six grandchildren those stories, they regard him with a kind of puzzlement.
“I would talk to them and say that my grandfather went to the March on Washington in 1963 and I went to the poor people’s campaign in 1968 and it is kind of ‘so?’” Harriford said. “They don’t understand the meaning.”
Many in Harriford’s generation never believed anything would change, particularly in South Carolina.
As a child in the 1940s, Walter Jackson shopped with his mother in downtown Columbia stores that offered no restroom facilities for blacks.
“If I had to go to the bathroom, I would have to leave the store and go down in the alley,” Jackson, a retired grocery warehouse employee, said. Then, he chuckled, “if the police came down the alley you were in trouble.”
As a youngster, the 77-year-old Jackson routinely climbed the stairs to the “buzzard’s roost” at the Five Points Theatre to watch a popular movie. Some in the balcony couldn’t resist throwing popcorn on the white patrons below for a prank, but retribution was swift.
“If one person threw some popcorn they would come upstairs and put everybody out.”
Those are the kind of stories that the mayor hopes will be told and recorded during this commemorative year.
“Every day it is more exciting and it grows,” Benjamin said of the initiative. “It’s going to turn into what I believe will be an unprecedented community-building effort.”