It happened in the blink of an eye. A young black man sitting at a whites-only lunch counter in downtown Columbia was stabbed.
The year was 1961, and after months of student-led sit-ins at cities across South Carolina, one of the first acts of known violence associated with the movement erupted just blocks from the State House in downtown Columbia.
The victim? A Benedict College divinity student named Lennie Glover.
To understand what was happening at the time, University of South Carolina history professor Bobby Donaldson says, you have to go back to 1960.
“Since the spring of the previous year, a large group of students had been engaged in a series of sit-ins or demonstrations at those businesses that maintained segregation,” Donaldson said.
Arrests had been made in Columbia, Sumter and Rock Hill.
Then, a pivotal moment in the movement came on March 2, 1961, when hundreds of African-American high school and college students led a march to the State House. Nearly 200 were arrested on breach of peace charges. The arrests eventually would lead to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Edwards v. South Carolina.
A few days after the State House demonstration, Glover and fellow Benedict College student David Carter were performing routine checks of lunch counters along Main Street. As older graduate students, the two were active in the statewide movement and would often help to organize sit-ins.
As well-known figures in the movement, both were highly visible, Donaldson said. In some ways that made them a target.
According to reports from the time, the two had stopped at the Woolworth’s downtown, when Carter stepped away to make a telephone call. A white man seeing Glover at the counter approached him saying, “Are you having any fun?”
Glover said nothing.
The man lunged at Glover, stabbing him between his ribs. Police officers were called and Glover was taken to Good Samaritan-Waverly Hospital, a hospital for blacks in Columbia, where he would lose his spleen and a large amount of blood.
Glover’s assailant, who fled the scene, was never caught.
Glover returned to the protest lines after he had recovered. But while he was away, students organized a boycott — the “Easter Lennie Glover No Buying Campaign.” Hitting merchants in the pocketbook, protesters refused to purchase goods from any store on Main Street.
Glover’s stabbing revealed two important things, Donaldson said.
“It shows the real tension that existed in Columbia during the early ’60s,” he said. “But it also shows (Glover’s) dogged determination to maintain his commitment to justice and equality.”
Like the Freedom Fighters of his era, Glover was willing to sacrifice everything for freedom and justice, Donaldson said. In the days after his stabbing, Glover would tell Jet Magazine he did not react because he did not want to be accused of “meeting violence with violence.”
After graduating from Benedict, Glover, a Pennsylvania native, settled in Buffalo, N.Y., where he would go on to work for the Buffalo Urban League and the Western Electric Co. He also became a business owner, opening five convenience stores and a laundromat.
But for those who remember Glover’s role in Columbia’s civil rights movement, his commitment to upholding the principles of civil disobedience even in the face of bodily harm came to mean much more than his individual achievements.
“Lennie Glover became a symbol,” Donaldson said. “Here was someone who could have walked away, but got back on the firing line.”
Glover died in Buffalo in 2005 after a brief illness. He was 69.