It was the black-and-white photographs that drew people in on Sunday.
They came to the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center to remember a now-famous civil rights march around the South Carolina State House, to share stories and perhaps even set the record straight about a movement that altered their individual lives and changed South Carolina.
But the photographic display of their younger selves, dressed in Sunday clothes, their faces set with determination, were irresistible in drawing out memories of March 2, 1961, a day that ended, for many of them, in a jail cell and launched a legal battle over the right to protest segregation that went to the nation’s high court.
“There’s Myrtle!” one woman exclaimed as she examined a photograph of marchers walking double-file on the State House grounds. Shortly, Myrtle Walker Sumter approached and confirmed that she was in the photograph, looking “scared to death” but fortified somewhere in the crowd by her roommate and best college friend, Mary Lou Sullivan, now Mary Lou Sullivan Amrullah.
They recalled how a police officer shouted something to them after they and several hundred students from high schools and colleges refused to disperse and instead launched into the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful” and songs of the civil rights movement.
“What did he say?” Amrullah recalled asking of her roommate.
“He said we are going to be arrested,” Sumter answered.
“I said, ‘Oh God, not again,’” Amrullah said. She had already been arrested for participating in one of the lunch-counter sit-ins in Columbia. “Eckerd’s first, then marching on the capitol,” she said.
In all, 187 were arrested March 2, 1961, charged with breach of the peace. All were black high school and college students except for one white USC student, Frederick Hart, who was downtown and joined the march. They were represented by two of the state’s most brilliant and tireless civil rights lawyers, Lincoln C. Jenkins and Matthew J. Perry.
In February 1963, the students’ convictions were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, the majority finding that the students’ First Amendment rights had been violated by their arrests.
The old college chums were among 150 or so who gathered for a roundtable discussion to talk about the memories and the legacies of that day as part of the city of Columbia’s focus on the pivotal year 1963. Columbia, led by Mayor Steve Benjamin, is one of seven Southern cities commemorating the 50th anniversary of 1960s-era protests and the changes those protests brought about.
Earlier in the day, many had worshipped together at Zion Baptist Church, the downtown church that had served as a launch point for the State House march and many other protests.
The Rev. James Edwards Jr., for whom the Edwards v. South Carolina case is named, said he had no fear as he participated in the march, mainly because he had been schooled by a prophetic grandfather and parents who limited his exposure to the indignities of segregation as he grew up in Ninety Six.
“We had God in the front, so it didn’t matter what was behind us,” he said.
Charles Barr and the Rev. Simon Bouie, whose names grace two Columbia lunch-counter sit-in cases that also went to the high court, spoke of the preparations made for the sit-ins and the guidance they received from the Rev. I. DeQuincey Newman, field director of the NAACP who coordinated the efforts of hundreds of college students.
They recounted the conditions of the old Columbia city jail, where they were fed cold grits and cornbread for breakfast in a dog pail, and grits, sardines and cornbread for dinner, also cold.
Bouie said the effort to end segregation led to a brain drain of some of the most talented African-Americans, who were weary of the fight and were eager to leave the South once they graduated.
US Rep. James Clyburn, D-SC, and Bobby Doctor, retired staff director of the US Commission on Civil Rights, spoke of the unfinished business of civil rights, pointing to high jobless rates among African-Americans, the high rates of incarceration and the legal challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Acts, which requires federal oversight of some election practices in Southern states.
“Racism in this country is still alive and well,” Doctor said. “Let’s not kid ourselves. It is wearing a different set of clothing.”
Two veterans of Greenville’s movement, Dee Dee Wright and Rep. Leola Robinson-Simpson, D-Greenville, were in high school when they came to Columbia with other Sterling High School students to join the Edwards march.
She wonders if it isn’t time to reinstitute the kind of spirit that ignited change so many years ago to fight modern battles of civil rights. “We may have to go back to Zion Baptist Church and start all over again.”