An excerpt from my book, "Unless WE Tell It...It Never Gets Told!" and Chapter 18, Joan Mattison Daniel...and more from the pivotal 1960 Civil Rights demonstrations.
"Joan Mattison Daniel stood with Jesse Jackson before he became Reverend Jesse Jackson, before there was an Operation PUSH, before there was a Rainbow Coalition, and before “Run Jesse Run.” She stood with Jesse Jackson, as college students who wanted to use the public library in downtown Greenville, South Carolina. She and others stood with Jesse Jackson to fight the infrastructure of racism. She stood tall and fought segregation and racism so that those who came after her would not have to fight. She fought for freedom of education and the freedom to read in the Greenville Public Library, this acknowledged repository for books.
Who would have thought the public library was just another vestige of racist and vitriolic discrimination and racism? When eight Black students entered the all-white library to extend their education by checking out books, the Civil Rights Movement began in Greenville, South Carolina. Joan Mattison was a student at Morris Brown College, and Jesse Jackson was a student at the University of Illinois. Joan, Jesse, Elaine Means, Margaree Seawright Crosby, Dorris Wright, Hattie Smith Wright, Benjamin Downs, and Willie Joe Wright were friends and high school classmates in Greenville. They became known as the Greenville Eight.
While home for Christmas in 1959, Jesse Jackson walked to the segregated “colored” library in search of research materials for schoolwork he needed to complete during his college break. According to Joan, the Black library on McBee Avenue was “woefully small.” The librarian, Jeanette Smith, worked hard to stock as many books as possible, but most books in the “colored” library were outdated, and the book inventory was tiny. Because Ms. Smith had to request books from the white library in Greenville, she told Jackson that she could not get the reference books he wanted for another six days. That would be too late. He would have to return to Illinois before he could get the books and work on his assignment.
Jesse walked to the white library on North Main to get the books himself. Jackson told Joan, “By the time I went over there to get the books, there were two policemen there. The librarian said she “did not have anyone to go to the book stacks” and “told me to come back in six days. Six days?” Jackson continued. “I was shocked. I told her I would be happy to get them myself because I needed those books right then.” Jackson did not get the books. He did get what he described as a “coded message” from one of the officers. “You heard what she said,” one officer told him. The message: “Leave or get arrested.” “I walked outside, and I just cried,” Jackson said. “It wasn’t right, and I was determined to challenge that system.”
The following year Jesse and Joan and other members of the Greenville Eight did challenge the system. On the morning of July 16, 1960, they gathered at Springfield Baptist Church, which at the time was a magnet for civil rights activism, led by a charismatic young pastor, the Reverend James Hall, who was also president of the Greenville Chapter of the NAACP. They walked to the library and were told that if they did not leave, they would be arrested. They left.
When they got to the church, Reverend Hall asked them why they had returned. He sent them back, telling them that going to jail was OK and, in fact, was expected. So, the Greenville Eight returned to the library. After peacefully refusing to leave, they were arrested by city police. They were released after spending about forty-five minutes at the city jail, according to the Greenville County library system.
Sitting in at a library might today not sound all that difficult, but it was a confrontation to the “comfort” system of White racism and segregation. Such “confrontations” were usually met with varying forms of violence. It was a further example of Black people “not knowing their place” and of being disrespected.
In talking with Joan, I asked how she and the other members of the Greenville Eight felt at the time. “There was no fear,” she said. 'We all knew we were a test case against the City of Greenville’s blatant racism and discrimination. But we all felt it was necessary. We also knew we had a responsibility to make society better by fighting segregation. In fact, each generation has a responsibility to fight America’s wrongs no matter where or what they are. After we sat-in at the library, it ignited other demonstrations in Greenville. Our library sit-in was a pivotal point in Greenville’s history, which made it all worthwhile.'
Later that month, Donald Sampson, the NAACP attorney in Greenville who represented the group, filed a suit in federal court to integrate the public libraries in Greenville. On September 2, the libraries closed— “in the face of the lawsuit,” as the library system put it. A few days later, Judge C. C. Wyche dismissed the suit, because the libraries were at that point “nonexistent.”
On September 19, the Greenville Public Library reopened as an integrated facility. Stories such as that of the Greenville Eight did not gain the prominence of some other flashpoints in the Civil Rights Movement, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, school integration in Arkansas by the Little Rock Nine, or the Greensboro Four’s arrest for sitting down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter.
Yet the work of the Eight launched demonstrations against racism in Greenville, began Jesse Jackson’s journey in civil rights, and was another chapter in the struggle for human dignity and respect. After the library arrests in July, there were more sit-ins and demonstrations. Demonstrators sat-in at lunch counters at Woolworth’s and Kress drugstores, and staged “wade-ins” at Cleveland Park’s segregated swimming pool. But the Greenville Public Library was strategic, said Reverend Hall. Joan taught in South Carolina and Duval County public schools for five years, and at Florida Community College at Jacksonville (now Florida State College at Jacksonville) for thirty-five years, retiring in 2003.
An elder in her church, True Holiness Deliverance Tabernacle, and the church’s executive secretary, Joan also serves as trustee and dean of Tabernacle Bible Institute and is the assistant to the overseer. She is the proud mother, with her former husband, Mathis Daniel, of daughter Sharalyn Daniel and son Cean Daniel, and the proud grandmother of five grandsons and a granddaughter.
Joan Mattison Daniel is a friend, a pioneering hero, and America and her home town of Greenville are much better because of the courage that she and the rest of the Greenville Eight displayed. Joan decided that enough was enough. I am glad that Joan Mattison Daniel calls Jacksonville home."
Rodney. L. Hurst, Sr.