[As told to the Celebration of Unsung Heroes on the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Movement events of 1963 at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, California.]
It's good to be here with all of you and hear these exciting stories. I remember a lot of things that happened back in the '60s. My dad had the good sense to take my brother and me to Montgomery, Alabama in 1956 during the Montgomery bus boycott. So I had a chance to meet Martin Luther King and to see that powerful Movement actually taking place, and it made a very great impression on me as a young 15-year-old, to see people whose churches had been bombed and who were being fired for being a part of this Movement. Walking to work, getting up an hour early to be a part of that Freedom struggle.
Well, partly as a result of that, I decided about four years later to go to Howard University which, as you know, is an African-American university in Washington, D.C. And at that time, the eating facilities and restaurants, etc, in Washington, D.C. had been integrated by some of the greatest people. But everything in Maryland and Virginia was totally segregated, even African ambassadors coming from the U.N. to Washington had to — [they] couldn't eat in the restaurants or sleep in the motels along the highway in Maryland.
So within a week of when the sit-ins began in Greensboro, North Carolina, we at Howard first began picketing the Woolworth's drug stores, and then we started going out to Maryland to sit down at the lunch counters in the drug stores, etc. to challenge the segregation laws there. And every Saturday morning is when we would go, and the same thing happened almost every week. They would close the lunch counter, call the police, and within 20 minutes, we would be arrested and put into the paddy wagon and taken off to jail. And we spent the weekends singing freedom songs and getting to know each other and inspiring ourselves for the long haul still ahead.
Well, in Virginia, they passed a law saying anybody that challenged the segregation law in Virginia could get up to six months in prison and/or a $500 fine. So we kept going to Maryland.
Finally after our final examinations in June, we got our courage together and did some additional nonviolence training and went down to Arlington [VA] just across the river. By the way, it wasn't just the threat of jail and fines, the American Nazi Party was down there threatening violence to anybody that challenged segregation, etc.
Well twelve of us from Howard went down to Arlington, went into a People's Drug store, so-called "People's" Drug store, and within moments the lunch counter was closed, and we heard sirens coming from different directions. And we got ready to head off to jail again. But the store owner in that case decided he didn't want to arrest us. He didn't want the bad publicity. But he also wasn't going to give us any food or drink. So we spent the next two days in that restaurant, waiting for something to eat and drink. And got pretty hungry, and it was the most challenging two days of my life.
The American Nazi Party did come with their swastikas. People spat at us. People put lit cigarettes down our backs. People punched us in the stomach so hard we would fall on the floor, and then they would kick us. And each time something like this would happen, we would try to respond in a friendly, loving way, the way we'd been trained to do. Well, toward the end of the second day, I was just kind of meditating there at the lunch counter, pretty hungry, and I heard a guy come up from behind me saying, "You nigger lover. If you don't get out of this store in two seconds, I'm gonna stab this through your heart."
And I looked around, and here was this guy with this most terrible look of hatred I'd ever seen, and in his hand was a switchblade which by that time was a half-inch from my heart or so. And I decided, well, I have two seconds to decide how I'm going to respond here. We'd had a lot of practice, and I looked at him in the eyes, and I said, "Friend, do what you believe is right, but I'll still try to love you." And it was quite amazing, his face contorted in hatred, and this knife that was about to stab me, his jaw began to drop, and his hand began to fall, and he left the store. And that was a pretty powerful experience for me about the power of nonviolence, you know, on a personal level.
But then we did something even more challenging later that evening. [The sit-in] had been on the front page of the Northern Virgina paper, so there were about 500 people outside with rocks and threatening violence against us. And we had written an appeal to the religious and community leaders of Arlington to use their influence to get the facilities opened to everyone. And we went to the front door of this People's Drug store and read this to the media and other people around there. And then we ended it by saying, "If nothing changes within a week, we'll be back." And that was really hard to do. Were we ready to come back and do this again?
And some friendly media people got us out of there alive, and we went back to Washington. As we crossed the bridge into Washington, I really felt I was coming home to the freedom land. And then we spent six days literally shaking. Did we have the courage to do this again?
And on the sixth day, we got a phone call that the religious and community leaders had met and had talked with the business leaders, and there was a commitment that within a week the eating facilities would be open in Arlington. So that was the most joyous experience of my life, I think. And it was also probably the most important lesson, not only in college but for my whole life, that even twelve students with some courage and a commitment to nonviolence could somehow awaken the hearts and consciences of people in the religious and civic communities to do something they could've done 50 years or 100 years earlier.
And so that lesson for me was, when something terrible is happening, you don't have to just curse the television or the politicians or whoever it is, you find some other people who share your commitment and challenge that. So that's what I've been doing for the last 50 years or so is being a part of nonviolent movements for peace and justice and environmental sanity. And obviously it wasn't just us twelve students. It was all over the South, people had courage, I mean as we've heard, in the Deep South even more courage than we had. And we felt that solidarity. And we believed that we could make a difference. And we had that hope and vision for change.
So that, to me, is very exciting. I've written a little book which isn't published yet, but it's called Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist, where I've talked about nonviolent campaigns that I've been a part of for the last 50 years. And I also just wanted to say that Vincent Harding, who worked very closely with Martin Luther King, was here just last week, and in the current issue of Street Spirit, there's a great interview and article about Vincent Harding. Vincent was very close to King and drafted the first — the draft of the End of the Vietnam War speech. I've got copies of this that we can give to everybody that's here.
And I'm just grateful for everybody that was a part of this Movement that has inspired all of us, and hopefully it will be a beacon for what people of the younger generation can do to continue that struggle for peace and justice in our country and in our world.
Copyright © David Hartsough, 2013
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