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Chapter 6-The Jacksonville Youth Council NAACP and the 1960 Sit-in Demonstrations"
In 1960, Woolworth represented one of the many vestiges of segregation that openly insulted Blacks daily. As a retail store that opened its doors to the public, Woolworth, as well as W. T. Grant, Kress, McCrory’s, and Cohen Brothers, would accept your money as a shopper at one counter, but not accept your money or allow you to shop at another.
Located at the corner of Monroe and Hogan in downtown Jacksonville, Woolworth Department Store was one of several major downtown stores. In today’s terms, Woolworth was an anchor store downtown. You would have also considered J. C. Penney an anchor store. Both stores were located next to each other and shared a common wall. You could literally walk from J. C. Penney to F. W. Woolworth without going outside, and behind both stores stood the Robert Meyer Hotel. Together, the three structures occupied an entire city block. (The recently built Federal Court House now sits on that site).
When you entered Woolworth from Hogan Street and looked to the left, you could see a lunch counter spanning the entire Monroe Street side of the store. Eighty-four lunch counter seats were punctuated by spacious customer-serving bays and bright windows.
You could stop and eat at Woolworth’s convenient lunch counter after spending time shopping in Woolworth or after shopping downtown. You could, that is, if you were white. For Blacks, an invisible sign read, “Lunch Counter, FOR WHITES ONLY.”
If black shoppers wanted to eat in Woolworth after shopping, the process worked differently. Woolworth wanted you to spend your money, but only where they wanted you to spend your money.
Enter Woolworth again. The white lunch counter is on your left. If you started walking to the rear of the store, you’d walk past the cosmetics counter;
then walk past the costume jewelry counter;
then walk past the popcorn popper;
then walk past the candy counter;
then walk past the women’s clothes counter;
then walk past the men’s clothes counter;
then walk past the children clothes counter;
then walk past the “White” and “Colored” water fountains;
then walk past the work shoes counter;
then walk past the dress shoes counter;
then walk past the bedroom shoes counter;
then walk past the picture frames and mirrors counter;
then walk past the aquarium supplies counter;
then walk past the stairs leading upstairs to restrooms marked “White Women,” “White Men,” “Colored Women,” “Colored Men”;
then walk past the pet food and pet supplies counter;
then walk past the house plants;
then walk past the gardening supplies counter;
AND THEN, and only then, would you see the Colored lunch counter, with its fifteen seats and no windows.
You could eat at the Colored lunch counter or you could walk to the restaurants and other eating establishments on Ashley Street, about six or seven blocks away. You also had a third option; you could wait until you got home. Bottom line: Woolworth accepted money from Black shoppers at one counter and rejected their money at another.
When we started sit-in demonstrations, we wanted everyone to know eating a hot dog and drinking a Coke would not be our focus. Human dignity and respect would be our fundamental focus, along with making segregation extremely expensive. Woolworth’s, Grant’s, Kress, McCrory’s, and other department stores all catered to daily lunch crowds with menus that featured fresh hot foods. In the age before microwaves, you could not refrigerate and quickly reheat anything.
We knew, based on information from the NAACP National Youth Office and from NAACP college chapters, that most stores would close their white lunch counters whenever Black students sat down there. You cannot serve grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, BLT sandwiches, garden vegetables for salads and sandwiches, and hot foods prepared for a daily crowd if your lunch counter is closed. You could not store the food overnight and serve it the next day. Who wanted reheated hot dogs or bacon that you had to put in the oven again? You had to throw the food out. We wanted storeowners and their managers to know that maintaining their segregated and discriminatory policies would be expensive.
Albeit, confronting a store about segregated white lunch counters would only be part of our strategy. Challenging the lunch counters and the designation of colored and white racial categories meant challenging the system and a way of life.
We understood sit-ins could turn ugly and violent. Even at our ages, we did not naively underestimate the danger. While we did not dwell on it, we did not underestimate it either. Mr. Pearson obviously understood the danger it posed, as well as his responsibility to ensure that both parents and students understood the risks. We did not appreciate the burden placed on Mr. Pearson as our adult advisor.
When the wave of sit-in demonstrations began February 1, 1960, with Jibreel Khazan (formerly Ezell Blair), Franklin Eugene McCain, Joseph Alfred McNeil, and David Richmond sitting at a “for whites only” lunch counter at a Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, no one could have imagined the aftermath.
Notwithstanding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the legacy of Mrs. Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., this courageous act by four young Black students from North Carolina A&T University changed the direction of the civil rights movement.
This first sit-down demonstration motivated students at Historically Black College and University campuses throughout the country. In the days that followed, demonstrators in more than 100 cities picketed segregated stores and participated in sit-in demonstrations. Most demonstrators were Black students, although some white students joined the demonstrations. Many thought it important that sit-in demonstrators look dignified and dress in their Sunday best. It became signally important to project an image of dignity.
In some cities, stores closed their lunch counters when students sat-in. In other cities, law enforcement officials arrested demonstrators for trespassing. In some of those cities where arrests took place, inmates beat demonstrators in jail, or law enforcement officials beat them under the guise of resisting arrest and a myriad of other charges. Law enforcement officials stood by, in a number of documented cases, and allowed inmates to rape Black female high school and college students. Of course, the press reported few of these cases.
By comparison with today, you would consider Blacks sitting at a segregated white lunch counter as tame stuff. But in the fifties and the sixties, Blacks sitting at a segregated white lunch counter was deemed a violent confrontation to the racial comfort system in the South. For white Americans, as a friend would say, “It was something that was so not going to happen.” After all, there were appropriately stationed lunch counters expressly for Negroes.
We employed the philosophy of “passive resistance” and non-violence during our sit-in demonstrations. If provoked, we would not fight back. Of course, we would defend ourselves if attacked, but non-violence became the prevailing approach to sit-ins. Not many would or could embrace that philosophy but we felt it necessary to confront the racist elements of American culture. It is the same strategy and philosophy used by Mahatma Gandhi when he fought and died for India’s freedom from British colonialism, and the same philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he fought and died for freedom and justice in the United States of America.
We decided our first sit-in would take place on Saturday, August 13, 1960, at Woolworth Department Store. Though we focused on Woolworth because of its strategic location, we also targeted the restaurant in Cohen Brothers (which now houses Jacksonville’s City Hall) and the lunch counters at W. T. Grant Department store, Kress Department store, and McCrory’s Department store.
Some Youth Council members had trouble sleeping on the Friday before August 13, 1960. Most of us experienced some anxiety leading up to that first sit-in demonstration. However, it did not linger with an advisor like Mr. Pearson.
On the morning of August 13, 1960, we had more than 100 Youth Council members ready to go. In our Youth Council meeting that Saturday morning, we prayed and sang our freedom songs. Leaving Laura Street Presbyterian Church Youth Center on foot en route to Woolworth’s in groups of twos and threes alerted no one.
We arrived at Woolworth’s a little after 11:00 a.m., well aware of what we were preparing to do. I called that morning the “beginning of a mission.” Understanding that “freedom is not free,” we had to step up to the plate; we had to stand up and be counted; we had to let everyone know what we were made of—all the clichés applied. We were not attending an after-school dance or a sock hop. Our mission was simple and serious.
Upon entering Woolworth, we planned to purchase an item to demonstrate that the store would accept our money. No problem there. However, if, Woolworth’s refused to serve us at the white lunch counter, we would use the earlier purchase to show the contradiction in Woolworth’s store policy—they would accept our money at one counter, while summarily refusing it at another.
Each of us always made sure we had enough money in our pocket just in case they decided to serve us at the counter. We would later joke with each other about newspaper headlines that read, “Youth Council members arrested, not for sitting in, but for not having money to pay for the food they ordered.”
Each demonstration had sit-in captains, and only the captains would talk to the media. We did not want conflicting “official” comments. Alton Yates and I were captains of the first sit-in on August 13, 1960. After purchasing our items, and at an agreed upon signal, Youth Council NAACP members followed me, Alton, and Marjorie Meeks to the white lunch counter. Jacksonville’s sit-in era had begun.
After sitting down, a white waitress announced loudly to all who could hear that “coloreds are not served at this lunch counter. This is the white lunch counter. The colored lunch counter is at the back of the store.” We did not move or say anything. White waitresses working behind the lunch counters began to huddle while giving us that “you don’t belong here” stare.
A little later, James Word, the manager of Woolworth, came and read a prepared statement that in effect said Woolworth reserves the right to refuse to serve anyone. He also gave us directions to the colored lunch counter. We still did not move. I told Mr. Word that we were here for service. He would later tell several of us that he was experiencing his first sit-in demonstration. I often wondered if he knew we were too. He gave the order to close the lunch counter.
We continued to sit. Just in case Woolworth store officials decided to re-open the lunch counter, we had agreed to sit through the entire lunch period. A crowd of white onlookers began to assemble and show displeasure by shouting tasty morsels of racial epithets. They obviously blamed us for Woolworth’s decision to close the lunch counter."
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