On February 1, 1960, four black students took seats at a lunch counter at the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth’s. The white waitresses ignored them. They remained in their seats. Supervisors told them to leave. Woolworth’s in North Carolina didn’t serve colored people. The students refused to move and demanded service.
In the early Spring of 1960, I went with two other students from Madison, Wisconsin, to Montgomery, Alabama, to try to build a civil rights support network. We met with Reverend Ralph Abernathy in Montgomery and established links with his church; then to Birmingham and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.
As we descended the steps of his church an Alabama state policeman met us and told us to drive to the Mississippi border without stopping. He followed us, red light on top of his car blinking. As we entered Mississippi, a highway patrol car met us. That cop delivered similar orders and followed us to the Tennessee border. The white power felt uneasy.
Within a year, thousands of black and whites, mainly students began to participate in sit-ins. They staged pickets of Woolworth stores in the North to support integration of lunch counters in the South. What began as one “action” evolved into a nationwide movement. I sat in with thousands of others at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel to force management to integrate staff, and at auto-row to insure the hiring of black salesmen. At Lucky Supermarkets integration activists filled shopping carts with groceries, placed them on the conveyer belt and left the store — to force Lucky to hire people of color at check out counters.
On April 17, 2010, some of those sit-in organizers heard Attorney General Eric Holder. “There is a direct line from that lunch counter to the Oval Office,” he told the 1,500 people assembled to celebrate the 50th anniversary of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) at Shaw University in Raleigh North Carolina. “If not for SNCC,” Holder said, “I would not be Attorney General. If not for SNCC, Barak Obama would not be President.”
SNCC became a school for organizers. Mario Savio learned from Bob Moses at the Mississippi SNCC project and returned to Berkeley to become the spokesman for the Free Speech Movement. David Harris went from SNCC to non-violent anti-war protests.
A de-segregation movement aimed at public services and accommodations evolved into a dynamic social and political force. In 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenged the Jim Crow whites at the Democratic convention. They failed to get seated, but on March 15, 1965, following a police attack against non-violent integrationists preparing a march to Montgomery that killed Rev. James Reeb, a white northerner, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed, “We shall overcome,” to push passage of the Voting Rights Bill.
By 1965, SNCC organizers had registered tens of thousands of previously disenfranchised voters in several southern States where they faced murderous police and Klansmen. Klan members murdered Viola Liuzzo near Selma. Klanners and cops conspired to assassinate Michael Schwerener and Andrew Goodman and their black comrade, James Chaney.
SNCC countered murder with courage – and reason and justice. By the late 1960s, elected black officials, including sheriffs, had begun a decisive change in the racial makeup of the American political system and forced an end to southern segregation. In the late 1970s, even Jim Crow poster boy former Alabama Governor George Wallace apologized for his prior segregationist advocacy.
The Dixiecrats lost power over the Democratic Party. Some became Republicans, but could no longer say the “n” word in public.
Fifty years later, a zealot spat on former SNCC organizer and now Congressman John Lewis and called him “nigger” – for supporting health insurance reform.
Lewis responded with dignity as he had done before when faced with far worse challenges. He joined hundreds of SNCC veterans at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the sit-in idea originated. Raleigh’s once segregated hotels, restaurants and bars were now integrated. Blacks sat front, back and middle on city buses.
The Civil Rights Movement unified millions of Americans behind one basic issue: getting the vote. They succeeded. What issue today could unify such a movement?
Harry Belafonte who played an important role in getting support for SNCC and throughout SNCC’s history scolded some conference attendees for complacency. The audience cheered him.
SNCC addressed core racial issues, but not class issues that Dr. King had begun to tackle before his assassination. Belafonte reminded the audience of the immense job before them. The sons and daughters of SNCC veterans, plus young people organizing from around the country cheered him – before returning to Atlanta, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and other areas to continue the work of the 1960s’ heroes.
Some spoke or listened at the meeting. Julian Bond, who served 20 years in the Georgia legislature, outlined the history of SNCC. Danny Glover preached action in outlining the contemporary. Bernice Reagon Johnson and the Freedom singers sang – half a century later – for freedom. The inspirational Rev. James Lawson agreed with Belafonte. SNCC did its parts in the 1960s, but the struggle is far from over.