On a March day in 1961, a day with enough chill in the air to require trench coats and jackets, a 20-year-old Benedict College student named James Edwards Jr. joined several hundred high school and college students for an NAACP march to the South Carolina capitol and into civil rights history.
Most were veterans of the Columbia’s sit-ins and downtown protests and considered this one more march against southern segregation and the city’s entrenched oppression of its black citizens.
Of those who gathered at Zion Baptist Church and flowed in streams down Assembly, Main and Sumter streets toward the State House, where the Legislature was in session, none appeared to fear arrest although some likely anticipated it.
And certainly none among them, especially Edwards, who became the lead petitioner among 187 protesters, expected the U.S. Supreme Court to take up their case and eventually decide in their favor.
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He simply knew he was in the right place at the right time.
“It was just like we were ordained to be in that march,” Edwards, a retired teacher and Baptist minister who grew up in Ninety-Six, said Tuesday. “We had to move. It was all God’s timing and God’s doing.”
A shield and a bulwark
Sunday, Edwards and other veterans of a legal decision that came to be known as Edwards v. South Carolina will gather for a special service at Zion Baptist, site of so many of the 1960s protest launches.
Later that day, Edwards will join Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., state Rep. Leola Robinson-Simpson, D-Greenville, the Rev. Simon Bouie, Charles Barr, Dee Dee Wright, and Bobby Doctor, all prominent in the movement, at a community roundtable at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.
The reunion events are part of Columbia’s 50th anniversary commemoration of the pivotal year of 1963 and the city’s role in the Southern civil rights movement.
For many, the reunion will be a validation of their place in a march and a movement that required many foot soldiers but yielded little personal glory.
“I don’t think they (the protesters) realized how historically significant it was,” Bobby Donaldson, a USC history and African-American studies professor, said of the Edwards case. “I think this is the first time that many of the students have even reflected on what occurred many years ago.”
Jean Toal, chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, has hailed the high court decision reached on Feb. 25, 1963 as a turning point in dismantling the city’s entrenched segregation. As a white high school student, she remembered sending the marchers off from Zion and watching as they were heckled on their way to the capitol.
“To have a case now that put us firmly in the Constitution, relying on the First Amendment as a shield and a bulwark to nonviolent demonstrations, that was huge,” Toal said recently.
‘I am proud to be a Negro’
With the passage of 52 years, the memories of that day have faded along with the photographs. No one knows why March 2, 1961 was selected as the date of the march. There are no records that can answer whether NAACP organizers knew just how significant the march would become in legal history.
But protesters still remember the texture of that day.
Edwards marched up Main Street. Clyburn, then a 20-year-old South Carolina State student, marched up Sumter Street. Another line of students marched up Assembly, then flowed together in front of the capitol’s horseshoe surrounding the Confederate Soldiers’ monument.
When they arrived at the State House, about 30 police were present, according to court records. For a half hour to 45 minutes the petitioners were allowed to walk single file or two abreast through the State House grounds, each group carrying placards bearing such messages as “I am proud to be a Negro” and “Down with segregation.”
Hecklers taunted the protesters, and as the crowd swelled to about 500, the city manager testified he feared that the sidewalks and street in front of the building would be blocked and a riot could break out.
The marchers were told to disperse within 15 minutes or face arrest for breaching the peace.
For those protesters who might be contemplating a quick exit, David Carter, another Benedict student and key organizer, was there to deliver an impromptu sermon, a “religious harangue” as the city manager would describe it to the court. The protesters burst into song, stamping their feet and singing “the Star Spangled Banner,” and civil rights protest songs.
Edwards and 186 others, including the Rev. I. DeQuincy Newman and the Rev. B.J. Glover and students, were arrested and hauled off to the city jail, where some would spend the next two or three days sleeping on cots in the basement. All were convicted for breach of peace.
Everyone has a memory from that day.
Clyburn was decked out in a new three-piece olive green suit with gold shirt and paisley tie — “dressed to kill,” the congressman chuckled — when he arrived in Columbia for the rally at Zion Baptist Church. He and his roommate, Clarence Missouri, had driven from South Carolina State but had no plans to participate in the march.
“I just didn’t want to go to jail that day,” Clyburn, South Carolina’s first black congressman since Reconstruction, recalled last week. “I had every intention of just coming to the rally at Zion Baptist Church and going back to S.C. State.”
But Newman, the charismatic NAACP leader and Methodist minister who engendered loyalty from students across the state, had other plans.
Newman eyed Clyburn’s fancy clothes — “he knew from that dress that I was not planning to go to jail” — then steered the two college men toward a group of students from Mather Academy in Camden. Both Clyburn and Missouri had graduated from Mather.
The high school students pleaded with the pair to lead them, and Clyburn and Missouri got “caught up.”
“I said, ‘Look, I’ll lead this march but when we get out there and are told to turn around, we are going to disband and we are going back to the church, because we need to go back to Orangeburg and you need to back to Camden.”
When they got to the sidewalk in front of the Capitol near the Confederate Soldier’s monument, Clyburn was ready to turn around. But by that time Carter was there and delivered a fiery oration that inspired the crowd and worried law enforcement.
“He riled the students up and they said, ‘Oh no, we aren’t going back, we are going forward,’” Clyburn said. “So needless to say, I was in jail in a few hours.”
Altering Columbia’s landscape
Clyburn, like so many others, promptly forget the case after he was bailed out of jail. He paid little attention as it wound its way to the nation’s high court.
“I had no idea that that case was going to be so big,” Clyburn said. “I had graduated and I was gone.”
Edwards recalled going to the court one time to observe the case that was argued by a legal team that included two of Columbia’s civil rights greats, the late Lincoln Jenkins and the late Matthew Perry.
At trial, only two adults testified, Glover, who would later become president of Allen University, and Newman, the NAACP leader, Donaldson said.
Two years after the march, on Feb. 25, 1963, the convictions for breach of the peace were overturned. Justice Potter Stewart, writing for the majority, found that South Carolina was attempting to “make criminal the peaceful expression of unpopular views” when the marchers were simply exercising their First Amendment rights.
Justice Tom C. Clark dissented, agreeing with city fathers who insisted the arrests were made to keep the peace.
Student leaders like Edwards, Carter, Simon Bouie, Charles Barr, Milton Greene, Tallmadge Neal, and Lennie Glover, who was stabbed during a sit-in a few days after he participated in the State House protest, were intensely involved in altering the landscape of downtown Columbia, then graduated and moved on with their lives.
Columbia gradually, and sometimes grudgingly, embraced integration.
Man students, like Edwards, became ministers, viewing the burgeoning American civil rights movement as part of God’s great plan that extended back to the Old Testament saga of the enslaved Israelites and their escape from bondage in Egypt.
“I’m a militant, like Jesus,” Edwards, who now lives in Augusta, said. If he was fearful, he remembered that Jesus on the cross had also asked “that the cup be taken from me.”
“When you were there, God was grooming you,” Edwards said. “He let us go through trials to prepare us.”