Mayor Steve Benjamin Thursday formally launched a commemoration of the year 1963, joining six other Southern cities in looking back at the civil rights struggle and assessing racial progress 50 years later.
Speaking at a news conference at the historic Zion Baptist Church, Benjamin hailed the initiative as a way to showcase the city’s African-American heritage and uncover stories of ordinary people who aided the decades-long struggle to overturn segregation in the South.
The initiative is so important because “we stand on the shoulders of these giants of generations past,” Benjamin told the crowd of about 30-40 people.
Retired S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest Finney, 81, told the audience at Thursday’s event that he could not have imagined a modern Columbia, or his own accomplished life in the profession of law, when he first entered sixth grade in Orangeburg, a city like Columbia that was strictly segregated.
“There are many people, many people, who made sacrifices making Columbia what it is,” Finney said. “It is not perfect, but it is on its way.”
Finney’s successor, S.C. Chief Justice Jean Toal, reminded the gathering of the rigid nature of the Jim Crow system.
“Now remember segregation was legalized by law in all facets of public accommodation, in housing and schooling and every other facet of life,” she said.
As a high school student, Toal participated in interracial talks in 1961 in hopes that young people, black and white, could dismantle the odious system.
She recalled being at “Big Zion” to send off black demonstrators preparing to march to the State House in March 1961. White students, she said, were told not to march because of the threat of violence, and as the demonstrators neared the capitol they were surrounded by a “group of very, very hostile” white onlookers.
“When the demonstrators got to the State House grounds, they sang ‘America the Beautiful’ and the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ and the very new anthem some of us young people had just learned, ‘We Shall Overcome,’” she said.
More than 180 were arrested on charges of disturbing the peace.
“As far as those of us who witnessed could see, the peace was being disturbed by those who were heckling and shouting vulgarities and even violent threats to the demonstrators,” Toal said.
The protesters were represented by the late U.S. District Judge Matthew Perry, a lion of the civil rights movement, in a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court overturned the convictions in the case, Edwards v. South Carolina, ruling the protesters were exercising their First Amendment rights.
“To have a case now that put us firmly in the Constitution, relying on the First Amendment as a shield and a bulwark to non-violent demonstrations, that was huge,” she said.
The mayor of Birmingham, Ala., invited Columbia to participate in the year-long commemoration. Other cities participating include Selma, Ala., Montgomery, Ala., Jackson, Miss., Memphis, Tenn., and Washington, D.C.
The mayor, working with the University of South Carolina and Historic Columbia Foundation, expects something permanent to come out of the year-long commemoration. He envisions an expansion of the city’s walking tours, permanent historic markers and a focus on Historic Columbia’s multi-site archeological dig at prominent African-American sites.
“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 last week, “recognizing that cultural tourism is the greatest economic opportunity that a city like ours has.”