Seeing the sites of freedom on a civil rights trail

The Little Rock Central High School Visitor Center has displays and videos of the confrontation in 1957, when nine black students were turned away.
The Little Rock Central High School Visitor Center has displays and videos of the confrontation in 1957, when nine black students were turned away. (MICHAEL MILNE)
Posted: January 12, 2014

With its green and orange vinyl seats, stainless steel cutlery, and bright-red ketchup bottles, the lunch counter looked quite ordinary, like thousands around the country. It was the place where townspeople rubbed elbows and traded gossip.

This counter, however, was far from ordinary. It's on the first floor of the F.W. Woolworth Building in Greensboro, N.C., and it played a pivotal role in the country's civil rights movement.

2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a high point in the African American struggle for equal rights that continues today. There are many sites that tell the story of the long march for freedom.

On Feb. 1, 1960, four African American students from nearby North Carolina A&T State University sat on those vinyl stools in Woolworth's and asked for a menu, a request that was refused by the shocked waitress. The students, Ezell Blair, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond, who became known as the Greensboro Four, left when the manager closed the restaurant. But they, and increasing numbers of fellow students, returned every day, requesting service.

There had been sit-ins at counters before, but the one in Greensboro sparked a movement that spread like wildfire throughout the South and north to the nation's capital. After six months of monetary losses, Woolworth's agreed to integrate the restaurants throughout the chain. After the students' simple act, the country was never the same.

The International Civil Rights Center & Museum in that same Woolworth's uses the historic setting to tell a broader tale of the struggle for equal rights and is part of a civil rights trail of related sites throughout the South.

The museum presents an unvarnished history of the movement. One area accessible only with a guide is the "Hall of Shame." Before entering, the guide warned that some of the displays could be disturbing, particularly for children. She said that with an eyebrow raised toward a man with his 11-year-old daughter. He placed his hand on the young girl's shoulder and replied, "She needs to see this."

In words and pictures, the Hall of Shame graphically relates the era of Jim Crow laws and lynchings that inspired the poem and song "Strange Fruit," made famous by Billie Holiday. Details of the incidents shock even well-read amateur historians of the period. The 11-year-old stopped to read the photo descriptions as her father held her closer.

Four years before the Woolworth sit-ins, a tired seamstress in Montgomery, Ala., named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. She was arrested for her refusal, but her case attracted the attention of the young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott in response. That led to national prominence for King. The Rosa Parks Museum now stands at the spot where the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement" refused to give up her seat.

In the museum, a reenactment of that fateful day puts visitors aboard the bus as though they were fellow passengers. Booming voices and flashing lights recreate the oppressive situation that got Parks arrested.

Displays tell the story of the black community's response to the arrest: a boycott of the bus system that lasted more than a year. Ad hoc motor pools using private vehicles and taxis ferried black workers, students, and travelers around town, always under the threat of violence for defying the authorities.

While the struggle to integrate bus systems and restaurants continued, a wider one was taking place that affected the nation's youth: integration of public schools. In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, the Supreme Court ruled schools could no longer be segregated and ordered them opened to all students with "all deliberate speed," a phrase that became subject to interpretation.

In September 1957, nine black students tried to enroll at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., but were turned away. President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent in the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division to pave the way for the students. Against that military backdrop, the school became a battleground for the teenage students, and Little Rock became a focal point for the world. Despite the presence of troops, the students suffered harassment and violence throughout the year.

The school, still open, is a National Historic Site. Tourists are directed to the Little Rock High School Visitor Center across the street, where videos and photographic displays interpret the events that led to the conflict and its aftermath.

The troops ensured the students could stay, but Little Rock residents voted overwhelmingly in 1958 to close their high schools rather than integrate them. That led to "The Lost Year," 1958-59, when schools were closed. (Although in a telling show of priorities, they managed to keep their football teams playing.)

A famous photo from the first week of school shows one of the students, Elizabeth Eckford, walking through the screaming crowd with her head held high, ignoring a short white girl a few feet behind her who was hurling racial epithets. In a photo taken decades later, the two, as grown women, are in an embrace of reconciliation.

Our visit coincided with class dismissal. Rows of school buses lined up outside as students left for the day. A sea of children of all colors mingled as they walked into the sunshine.

Our tour of civil rights sites ended in Memphis, Tenn., a place of sudden endings mingled with a message of hope. The Lorraine Motel, site of King's assassination, has been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum. A boardinghouse across the street where King's killer lay in wait is the museum's visitor center, which also displays items related to the assassination.

King died about a dozen years after he came to prominence during the Montgomery bus boycott. His legacy, as well as that of those who fought for freedom before, with, and after him, are honored in the museum. Visitors take a sobering "balcony tour," and can peer into the room where King stayed on his final night and can stand at the spot where he was struck down, marked by a wreath on the wrought-iron railing.

Many visitors who enter the museum by the front door don't know there's a road behind the motel that was named long before any events of historical significance took place there: St. Martin Street.


Larissa and Michael Milne are traveling across America seeking historic and legendary sights. Follow their journey at www.ChangesInLongitude.com.

traveltalk@phillynews.com

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