Mar 072019

On this date in 1965, an estimated 525 to 600 civil rights marchers headed southeast out of Selma, Alabama on U.S. Highway 80. The march was led by John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Reverend Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), followed by Bob Mants of SNCC and Albert Turner of SCLC. The protest went according to plan until the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they encountered a wall of state troopers and a county posse waiting for them on the other side.

County Sheriff Jim Clark had issued an order for all white males in Dallas County over the age of twenty-one to report to the courthouse that morning to be deputized. Commanding officer John Cloud told the demonstrators to disband at once and go home. Rev. Hosea Williams tried to speak to the officer, but Cloud curtly informed him there was nothing to discuss. Seconds later, the troopers began shoving the demonstrators, knocking many to the ground and beating them with nightsticks. Another detachment of troopers fired tear gas, and mounted troopers charged the crowd on horseback.

Televised images of the brutal attack presented North American and international audiences with horrifying images of marchers left bloodied and severely injured, and roused support for the Selma Voting Rights Campaign. Amelia Boynton, who had helped organize the march as well as marching in it, was beaten unconscious. A photograph of her lying on the road of the Edmund Pettus Bridge appeared on the front page of newspapers and news magazines around the world. In all, 17 marchers were hospitalized and 50 treated for lesser injuries. The day soon became known as “Bloody Sunday” within the African-American community, and now is known universally by that name.

Whilst I could go into greater detail concerning the leadup to the march and the aftermath of the events, I’ll leave you to read elsewhere about that and instead pause to underscore some critical facts.  Chief of these is that Bloody Sunday is not ancient history, it is an event well within living memory. I remember it, and I was not even living in the US at the time. Many of the participants are now dead, of course, but not all, and a great many people my age who lived through those times are now in positions of power. These are people who went to segregated schools, lived in segregated communities, and championed racist policies.

Slavery ended after the US Civil War, it is true, but the emancipation of slaves by no means ended the subjugation of former slaves and their descendants. For 100 years Jim Crow and miscegenation laws along with enforced segregation continued a pattern of oppression for African-Americans so that it is supremely disingenuous for contemporary pundits to tell African-Americans that it is time to “get over” slavery, as I have heard repeatedly in recent times. At this stage of the game, slavery is not the issue; it’s what followed that is the continuing gaping wound which so many talking heads would like to pretend does not exist. The current president of the United States and his father were taken to court for refusing to rent certain properties to African-Americans, so we are not talking about the distant past or even the more recent past; we are talking about present realities.

I lived in a coastal North Carolina village in 1978 when the laws against segregation had theoretically changed the social situation, but not much had changed in terms of actual social conditions. The schools in the county were integrated by law, seemingly without much of a fight, but everything else was de facto segregated. There was a Black church (AME Zion) and a White church (Southern Baptist) with zero interaction between congregations. In fact, the Baptist church had held a congregational meeting to forbid African-American members, although I had never come across an example of an African-American attending services, let alone applying for membership. When I returned to the village in 1990, the situation was still the same. The African-American families in the village still lived in complete isolation in a sector surrounding the AME Zion church, and rarely, if ever, interacted with the White community. I vividly recall a day when I was living in the village when an old respected member of the African-American community bought something in the general store and for a few minutes sat on one of the benches in the store where old timers gathered throughout the day to shoot the breeze, and it was such a momentous event that it was talked about for days afterwards (not necessarily in a negative way, but just as a wonder that it happened at all).

What I experienced in that village could have been replicated in tens of thousands of villages across the country in those days – and not just in the South. De facto segregation was, and is, an everyday fact of life in the US. It is certainly true that from 1965 onwards, great strides have been made, but the war is far from over. This post (and others of its ilk) is meant to serve as a reminder that although the 1960s were a turning point, we are talking about a bend in the road not a 180° turn.

Perhaps you’ll appreciate the unsubtle irony of presenting a video on Alabama White BBQ sauce on this date:

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On this date in 1960 at 4:30pm four African-American students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University sat down at the lunch counter inside the Woolworth store at 132 South Elm Street in Greensboro, North Carolina. The men, later known as the A&T Four or the Greensboro Four, went to Woolworth’s Store, bought toothpaste and other products from a desegregated counter at the store with no problems, and then were refused service from the segregated lunch counter when they each asked for a cup of coffee, at the same store. Following store policy, the lunch counter staff refused to serve the black men at the “whites only” counter and store manager Clarence Harris asked them to leave. However, the four freshman stayed until the store closed that night.


The next day, more than twenty black students who had been recruited from other campus groups came to the store to join the sit-in. Students from Bennett College, a college for black women in Greensboro, joined the protest. White customers heckled the black students, who read books and studied to keep busy. The lunch counter staff continued to refuse service.


Newspaper reporters and a TV videographer covered the second day of peaceful demonstrations and others in the community learned of the protests. On the third day, more than 60 people came to the Woolworth store. A statement issued by Woolworth national headquarters said the company would “abide by local custom” and maintain its segregated policy. More than 300 people took part on the fourth day. Organizers agreed to spread the sit-in protests to include the lunch counter at Greensboro’s Kress store.

As early as one week after the Greensboro sit-in had begun, students in other North Carolina towns launched their own sit-ins. Demonstrations spread to towns near Greensboro, including Winston-Salem, Durham, Raleigh, and Charlotte. Out-of-state towns such as Lexington, Kentucky, also saw protests. The movement then spread to other Southern cities including Richmond, Virginia, and Nashville, Tennessee where the students of the Nashville Student Movement had been trained for a sit-in by civil rights activist James Lawson and had already started the process when Greensboro occurred. Although the majority of these protests were peaceful, there were instances where protests became violent. For example, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, tensions rose between blacks and whites and fights broke out. Another city where sit-ins occurred was Jackson, Mississippi. Students from Tougaloo College staged a sit-in on May 28, 1963. The incident is recorded in the autobiography of one of the members in attendance, Anne Moody. In Coming of Age in Mississippi Moody described the treatment of the whites who were at the counter when they sat down, as well as the formation of the mob in the store and how they managed to finally leave the store.


As the sit-ins continued, tensions grew in Greensboro and students began a far-reaching boycott of stores that had segregated lunch counters. Sales at the boycotted stores dropped by a third, leading the stores’ owners to abandon their segregation policies. On Monday, July 25, 1960, after nearly $200,000 in losses due to the demonstrations, store manager Clarence Harris asked 3 black employees to change out of work clothes into street clothes and order a meal at the counter. These were the first to be served at the store’s lunch counter, an event that received little publicity. The entire Woolworth was desegregated, serving blacks and whites alike, although Woolworth lunch counters in other Tennessee cities, such as Jackson, continued to be segregated until around 1965, despite many protests.

The February One monument and sculpture stands on North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University’s campus and is dedicated to the actions taken by the Greensboro Four that helped spark the Civil Rights Movement in the South.


Despite sometimes violent reaction to the sit-ins, these demonstrations eventually led to positive results. For example, the sit-ins received significant media and government attention. When the Woolworth sit-in began, the Greensboro newspaper published daily articles on the growth and impact of the demonstration. The sit-ins made headlines in other cities as well, as the demonstrations spread throughout the Southern states. A Charlotte newspaper published an article on February 9, 1960, describing the statewide sit-ins and the resulting closures of dozens of lunch counters. Furthermore, on March 16, 1960, President Eisenhower expressed his concern for those who were fighting for their human and civil rights, saying that he was “deeply sympathetic with the efforts of any group to enjoy the rights of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution.” Also, this sit-in was a contributing factor in the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

In many towns, the sit-ins were successful in achieving the desegregation of lunch counters and other public places. Nashville’s students, who started their sit-ins a few days after the Greensboro group, attained desegregation of the downtown department store lunch counters in May, 1960.

The media picked up this issue and covered it nationwide, beginning with lunch counters and spreading to other forms of public accommodation, including transport facilities, art galleries, beaches, parks, swimming pools, libraries, and even museums around the South. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandated desegregation in public accommodations.


In 1993, a portion of the lunch counter was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution. The International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, contains four chairs from the Woolworth counter along with photos of the original four protesters, a timeline of the events, and headlines from the media.The street south of the site was renamed February One Place, in commemoration of the date of the first Greensboro sit-in.

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The Greensboro Four, and later protesters, tried to be straightforward by ordering coffee, but these menus give an idea of what was on offer in those days. The central feature of the Woolworth’s lunch counter of the 1960s was the grill which produced hamburgers, hot dogs, and grilled sandwiches. I’ve always liked grilled ham and cheese as a quick lunch. Here’s an updated version from my kitchen in Mantua – a slice of asiago plus prosciutto. A little up market by 1960s North Carolina standards, I admit, but it still works.

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