Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Burke students set examples, changed history

Thanks to the Charleston Post & Courier for this weekend feature article on the sit-ins of the 1960s at S.H. Kress on King Street and elsewhere.

What a tremendous message these events communicated: That high school students could and can, in fact, have a great impact on the history of their communities.

Today, I'm afraid to say, thanks to the super-saturation of pop culture, our high schoolers are more likely to know exactly the whereabouts of Justin Bieber or be retweeting the most recent emanations of Kim Kardashian than understand how our present governor is like an absentee landlord, or how their lawmakers have sold their votes to out-of-state ideologues, or what further actions are being taken in Columbia to limit our civic freedoms.

In short, I wish we had more students like Alvin Latten, David Richardson, Verna McNeil, Minerva Brown King and Fred Smalls.

Minerva Brown King sat silent as a waitress poured ammonia on the lunch counter in an attempt to force her to leave.

King, then a junior at Burke High School, didn’t move, and neither did any of the other 23 students who staged the first downtown sit-in of a segregated five-and-dime store, S.H. Kress.

“It was one of the catalysts for the change that eventually led to desegregated public accommodations,” said King, now a media specialist at St. John’s High School on Johns Island.

Today marks the anniversary of that April 1, 1960, sit-in at the King Street building that now houses upscale household goods retailer Williams-Sonoma.

The event was significant because it showed that youths were politically active at an earlier age than some previously thought, said Jon Hale, an assistant professor of education at the College of Charleston who studies the history of education. It also showed that protests among high school students played an integral although overlooked role in the overall Civil Rights movement, Hale said.

The April 1 sit-in served as the precursor to a broader Civil Rights movement in the community.

“They taught the lesson of, ‘We can do this, and we’re not too young,’” Hale said. “It set an example for others to follow. It was more of an ideological victory.”

Some of the Burke High School students involved continued the fight for equal rights. Harvey Gantt, for example, went on to become the first to integrate Clemson University, in the winter of 1963.

Another student involved was Cecelia Gordon Rogers, then a senior at Burke. She has lived most of her life in Charleston, and she has been one of the primary forces behind Charleston Development Academy, a small charter school that mostly serves students in the surrounding housing project. Rogers is the school’s principal.

The April 1 sit-in and other experiences during the Civil Rights movement helped shaped her to become the kind of person who can’t sit idle on the sidelines, she said.

“There was a sense of hopefulness that we would end up with a better community, a more cohesive community,” Rogers said. “I just wanted to be a part of making things different.”

King was the daughter of J. Arthur Brown, then the Charleston NAACP president, and the sit-in was the first time she participated in an organized event without her family’s knowledge.

She and other members of the youth Charleston NAACP met for weeks to prepare, role-playing scenarios and learning how to react to physical abuse and verbal threats.

Students picked April 1 because they wouldn’t have school. It also happened to be exactly two months after four college students staged the historically significant sit-in at the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, N.C.

On April 1, 1960, Burke High students dressed in their Sunday best. King wore a garnet two-piece wool suit. They originally set out for Woolworth’s, but word of their effort had leaked and they weren’t able to sit at the counter, King said.

Their back-up plan was Kress, and the store’s workers had no idea they were coming. Students took up more than half of the lunch-counter seats, and managers took the tops off the remaining seats so no one else could join them.

Students tried to order but were refused service. They were told to leave but they refused. They were threatened with arrest but they didn’t budge.

They didn’t talk, other than to say the Lord’s Prayer or recite Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” They stayed for more than 5½ hours before police arrested them.

“There was never fear,” King said. “I guess you can call it apprehension, because you just never know how people are going to react, but I don’t remember ever being afraid. I think I felt excitement that we were becoming a part of the movement that would become national. It was positive, and it felt good that we as young people were taking the initiative to do this.”

It was a time that King and Rogers remember vividly and still talk about today.

“It really was for a cause,” Rogers said.

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