Fifty years later, remembering Greenville's civil rights activists
Published: Friday, January 29, 2010
Updated: Monday, May 23, 2011 16:05
For many students, the idea of lunch counter sit-ins and civil rights marches is something for the history books, hardly relevant today. It is barely imaginable that there was ever a day when a black person couldn't get a burger at Pete's unless they were willing to be served through a window. Fifty years ago, this was the case. "Virtually coincident with the opening of this campus was the crystallization of the Civil Rights movement nationwide and in Greenville, SC," said Furman President David E. Shi as he introduced a panel of speakers from the Civil Rights struggle in 1960s' Greenville.
"It wasn't as if [segregation] was something new," said Benjamin Downs, Jr. "We were used to being second-class citizens, whether we wanted to or not."
Lottie Gibson, a Greenville County Councilwoman, recalled more specific memories. "We always knew that Furman was off limits to us," she said, referring to the old downtown campus. As a child, she and her friends were always chased off when they tried to roller skate on the university's pavement.
"Life in Greenville was, for us, rough," she said. "You could feel the uneasiness, you could feel the tension. This unrest came to eruption in the late 50s."
Until then, said Leola Robinson-Simpson, the third member of the panel, "Greenville was probably your typical Southern Jim Crow hick town." The protest movement began with the famous Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, and spread south.
In October 1959, the South Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held its annual meeting in Greenville. Jackie Robinson, the famed baseball player, was their invited banquet speaker. He was not allowed to enter the whites-only airport waiting room.
In protest, between 900-1000 people staged a New Year's Day 1960 march from Springfield Baptist Church to the downtown municipal airport.
"I didn't march on January 1," said Gibson. "I was in charge of the food." As the director of the United Service Organization (USO) on McBee Avenue, she employed that space as well as the neighboring church's basement to feed the protesters before the march, knowing that if they got "locked up," they might not get fed at all.
Robinson-Simpson was among the airport marchers, and fondly recalled Gibson's sandwiches at that protests and many others, as well as prison releases. "Whenever we were released, Lottie was always there with one of her sandwiches - I remember the pimento cheese."
The next attempted protest was the March 1 library sit-in, which failed when the library shut its doors to the protestors. On March 16, the protesters tried again. Downs was part of the group, which came to be known as the Greenville 7.
That day, and many others, the seven protesters went to jail, but they were hardly fazed. "When you're 16, you believe you can make a difference," said Downs. "You're young enough then that you believe nothing can happen to you. It was fun; it was adventurous. We were sort of stupid. But hey, we were doing something."
A student protest movement formed all over the South after the March sit-ins, explained Robinson-Simpson. "It was a very serious time. It was very strategic - sit-ins were an organized thing," she said.
People were screened before they were allowed to sit-in. Potential protesters were asked if they could handle someone spitting on them or mocking them.
"This is a peace march," Gibson said, remembering the instructions given. "You can't curse back, you can't fight back, no matter what they do to you."
Before each march protesters first went to the city council to argue their case and to "sensitize them to the fact that black folk in Greenville County were human."
The Greenville group marched different places every weekend for a year after the airport - and then nothing happened. Members became disenchanted, thinking that no matter what they did, the Jim Crow laws would stay on the books.
As their next tactic, protesters selected two of the all-white churches of city council members and the decidedly racist mayor in which to attempt to attend. When they were finally allowed to worship, the "pray-in" demonstrations became their first breakthrough.
Victories followed at the lunch counters. "Out of all the grief and hardship, we still had a lot of fun," said Gibson, remembering one of her fellow protesters, once they were finally served in an all-white restaurant, ordering "two 'nana splits and a Pepsi."
Despite the battles won, all three panelists stressed that the quest for equality was far from over. "It's a new day in Greenville, but we still have a long way to go," said Gibson.
Then panel charged the next generation with the task. "No matter who you are," said Robinson-Simpson, "no matter where you are, do something to make the world a better place."
"The world takes from you," said Downs in closing. "If you want something, you have to work for it. Freedom, equality - you have to work for it. It's not something given to you on a silver platter.