The Everlasting Jackson Wooworth Sit-In of May 28 1963

Context, Development, Ramifications

Hunter Bear (John Salter, Hunter Gray)

The Jackson Mississippi Woolworth Sit-In of May 28 1963 was the most violently attacked sit-in of the 1960s. It was also the most media publicized and its positive and enduring impact has been considerable indeed.

It did not occur in a void. It was an integral step and a big one in the context of the Jackson Movement whose direct origins lay in the Jackson Boycott Movement which took functional shape in December 1962. ( I was the Advisor to the North Jackson NAACP Youth Council, active in that part of the city and then reaching out to involve a large number of Tougaloo Southern Christian College students.) At that point, my wife, Eldri, and I and four Tougaloo students — Bette Anne Poole, Walter Mitchell, Rupert Crawford, and Ronald Mitchell — picketed the Woolworth store and were arrested by almost 100 police.

This launched the boycott. Massive distribution of boycott leaflets began and continued for months — as well as chain telephone calls and church visits. There were two more very small, quickly arrested picket demonstrations. The goals of the boycott included fair treatment of Black consumers and equal opportunity for Black workers. We also were aware of the power of business in pressuring politicians.

The specific target area was one dimension of Jackson, the critical downtown "economic nerve center": Capitol Street with parameters State Street to Mill Street, plus several adjacent and outlying businesses. Thus most of Jackson was still open to shopping. In the affected area, the boycott was almost immediately quite effective. And it always maintained that effectiveness. But the "other side" remained adamant, recalcitrant. Large scale nonviolent direct action was needed. The National NAACP pledged full support.

By May 1963, the boycott had accomplished a great deal of community organization in its own right and was directly morphing into the broader and extremely activist Jackson Movement — with a number of specific civil rights goals. As this developed, official and vigilante repression was brutal, often bloody. The Jackson Movement featured a myriad of dramatic events, some of high drama and others quietly so. The Woolworth Sit-In occurred on the first day of the large scale nonviolent action phase of our Movement.

In the thoroughly poisoned atmosphere of Mississippi of that time, as in all of the many hardcore areas in the South when it came to civil rights matters, anyone who played an activist support role of any kind on behalf of the Jackson Movement, or civil rights in general, displayed great courage.

The Woolworth Sit-In, inspired by the fast emerging Jackson Movement, and in turn — as did other subsequent events in the days ahead — intensively fueling the Movement itself, began in conjunction with picketing demonstrations that we also organized. (I was chair of the Strategy Committee of the now Jackson Movement.) Instant arrests were expected. This happened with the pickets, but not with the sit-in protesters.

Three sit-ins entered the Woolworth store that Tuesday, May 28, 1963 at about 11 am. They were Tougaloo students Anne Moody and Memphis Norman and Pearlena Lewis of the Youth Council. Surprisingly, they were not arrested and, for an hour, nothing much happened at the now shut-down lunch counter. But then nearby white high school students on lunch break began to enter the store with some adults almost immediately thereafter. Things became almost instantly ugly.

One of our downtown spotters called us, in the "Negro" Masonic Temple where myself and Medgar Evers and a few others were in the NAACP offices. Large numbers of white students and a growing number of white adults were now entering the store. Memphis Norman was struck, knocked off his stool, and brutally kicked into unconsciousness. He was arrested, along with his adult assailant, by the police. Those were the only police arrest actions at the store. They just stood by outside. Later, FBI agents were observing inside but took no action.

Three of us left immediately for the Woolworth store: myself, Mercedes Wright of the Georgia NAACP Youth Council (Mercedes could "pass" for white), Walter Williams, a Jackson State student. Parking some distance away, we got to the store and its screaming mob about 12:40 pm.

The sit-ins had been split up. Pearlena Lewis was sitting down-counter and Joan Trumpauer (Mulholland), Tougaloo's only white student at that point, had joined Anne Moody. Lois Chaffee, a white Tougaloo instructor, had joined Pearlena. Walter Williams immediately joined them and I immediately joined Anne and Joan.

Mercedes Wright served as an in-crowd spotter along with the Reverend Ed King, Tougaloo's white chaplain.

The mob grew. There was a fast growing number of media people. George Raymond of CORE joined the Pearlena/Walter group. Later, close to the end of the tortured affair, a young high schooler, James Beard, joined our part of the demonstration.

Almost every one of our sit-ins was covered with slop — ketchup, mustard, sugar, salt. Men were punched, burned with cigarettes, and Walter Williams was almost forced off his stool but held on. The women were pushed and shoved and their hair was badly yanked.

Almost immediately following my sitting down, I, already known in Jackson, became a special target. I was struck with fists, to one of which was attached brass knuckles; cut with a broken sugar container; burned with cigarettes, had a mix of pepper and water thrown into my eyes. There was a good deal of blood on me.

I have virtually never felt fear. I seem to be wired that way. This has been noted by many. So while I remember thinking we could get shot, and it was likely I could be a prime candidate, I wasn't particularly worried about myself. I began thinking sociologically.

I have always found it difficult to blame the kids in the mob -- at least beyond a certain point. One of the things I consistently did was to study Deep South history, sociology, culture. I knew where they were coming from and that awareness, which convicts the economic Big Mules and their opportunistic racist political allies, also makes it tough to be too hard on those kids. My oldest son, John, in more recent times has been with me when we have had interesting discussions in Mississippi with former adversaries.

And then, of course, there still are those to whom Rhett Butler's comment to Scarlett certainly applies, "The Old Guard dies but it never surrenders."

Soon after the Brown desegregation decision in '54, the white Citizens Council movement -- middle and upper echelon class-wise -- began in Mississippi and, quickly pervasive, captured the state with its clarion call, "States' Rights, Racial Integrity." It spread across the South, not always pervasively, but in consistently sinister and influential fashion. In due course, among its many poisonous branches and leaves, was its "curriculum" for the white grade school kids. In early years, kids were often taught that "blue birds play with blue birds only" and "chickens do not mix." Quack nonsense then explained this latter by indicating that, if one took 100 chickens, 50 of them white and the other 50 black, they would naturally segregate themselves. In lessons designed for the later grade levels, kids were told that "[White] Southerners built America," "[White] Southerners are the true patriots", "Race-Mixers are Communists," "Race-Mixers want to destroy the South and America."

As we began to approach mid-afternoon, the mob began to trash the store. At about that moment, Dr. A.D. Beittel, Tougaloo president (and white) entered the store and sat down near us. The store manager declared the place closed and the police ordered everyone out.

I went back to Tougaloo briefly for a bite to eat. There I saw Mr Henry Briggs, a key college staffer, bringing Memphis Norman back. Memphis was essentially OK. (Comparing notes, we grinned at each other.)

The response from the Black community that evening was overwhelming. At least 800 people gathered at Pearl Street AME for the mass meeting. "Law enforcement", much on the scene outside, was obviously shocked by the huge turnout.

The Jackson Movement, recipient of a great shot of energy, moved ahead. Its trail those next few weeks was marked by dramatic highs and lows. The spirit of the growing numbers of grassroots people in both mass marches and smaller actions was high, capably facing police and vigilante repression and often imprisonment at the state fairgrounds which had been turned into a concentration camp.

On the other hand, the National NAACP, despite its strong pledge of support — frightened by police violence, concerned about fiscal factors, and influenced by the always politically-conscious Kennedy administration -- packed the strategy committee with conservatives. It then cut off almost all of the funding for our Movement, discouraging any larger scale demonstrations. As the Jackson Movement waned, increasingly confident night-time white terrorism increased. Medgar Evers was shot the night of June 11 and died shortly after midnight June 12.

The Movement revived immediately, large scale and nonviolently — and the mass demonstrations sent heavy shock waves into Jackson and across the state. Repression increased also, featuring some of the most extreme brutality of the 1960s.

In one of these situations, I was surrounded by several police and clubbed into bloody unconsciousness. Photos of this beating were carried nationally and globally — including Newsweek and the front page of the New York Times — but the FBI people, who took my bloody shirt, said the specific assailants could not be identified.

On Tuesday, June 18, three weeks after the Sit-In, several things of high significance occurred. The Kennedy brothers were openly involved in "cooling- off" phone calls to officials and some others. They had already been doing so, at least during the day before. Some of us had heard of high Justice Department men on the local scene but had not seen them.

Around noon of that Tuesday, I and Ed King were brought very close to death when a car driven by a young white man lunged through a side-street stop sign, precipitating a crash between another car and mine. My car, in which Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and then Martin King of SCLC had ridden a few days before, was wrecked totally and both of us were operated on at length throughout that following night.

And that same night, at a carefully controlled mass meeting at the Masonic Temple, a paltry "settlement" was "accepted", amid many protests. It involved no challenge to segregation and amounted to nothing more than that offered by the Mayor at earlier points.

The mass phase of the Jackson Movement, with its significant demonstrations, ended. But it had generated stunning shock waves into Jackson and Mississippi itself — and "made cracks" which widened and deepened. And the boycott continued.

The Sit-In, that extraordinary boiled-down essence of mob racism at its extremes, the high courage of non-violent demonstrators, and official sins of commission and omission by "lawmen" and the FBI — was already spreading its rich inspiration globally even before the burning crucible event concluded. It provided early grist for Congressional supporters of the pending Civil Rights Bill (to become the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Films ranging from Malcom X to the fictional Native rights activist, Billy Jack, have carried literal or symbolic depictions of it.

Justice issues remain today as numerous as needles on a Ponderosa Pine tree. By now, photos of the Sit-In have inspired several generations of social justice activists — and continue right along on that shining trail.

So, like Ursa Major, the Great Bear In the Sky, the Woolworth Sit-In of Jackson always — always — flies high.

Copyright © Hunter Gray. 2017

[My book, Jackson Mississippi, provides detailed coverage of the Jackson Movement. Its latest edition, with a large new introduction, was issued by University of Nebraska Press, 2011. After Jackson, I became Field Organizer for the Southern Conference Educational Fund — community organization, voter registration and desegregation, anti-Klan work. My hardy spouse, Eldri, and I and our growing family were in Deep Dixie from 1961-67 — and then on to other dragons far and away for decades to come.)]

See Jackson Sit-in & Protests for background & more information.
See also Mississippi Movement for web links.

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