by Eric Ginsburg

by Eric Ginsburg | You can buy a portrait of a young Jesse Jackson in the gift shop of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum downtown, tall and watchful in short lapels and a skinny tie, standing behind an intense Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The shot, published by Otis Hairston Jr., was taken shortly after Jackson joined in local efforts to desegregate downtown Greensboro 50 years ago, when he was just a student at NC A&T University who didn’t have much experience speaking in front of crowds. “You know, I grew up with a kind of speech impediment really, but learned to bark signals as a quarterback,” Jackson explained. “I learned how to talk in that sense, talk in that way, and took some speech classes.” He quickly became identified with the movement during the summer of 1963, when demonstrators mobilized en masse and successfully fought for the end of segregation in Greensboro’s public places. Jackson found his tongue quickly — he was charismatic enough to be elected A&T student body president and eloquent enough that one of his quotes is immortalized on the civil rights museum’s wall. His involvement in the Civil Rights Movement here, and his few years at A&T, were catalytic in creating the larger-than-life icon that Jackson has become. During a brief trip to Greensboro to help the museum’s fundraising efforts last month, Jackson recalled his time as a student in Greensboro, the movement in 1963, his family’s reaction, local civil rights leaders, his student-body presidency, football and the school’s lasting impact on his life. The context Jackson arrived in Greensboro in the fall of 1960 after transferring from the University of Illinois during a transformative, tense moment. The Sit-In Movement launched earlier that year by the A&T Four and picked up by high school students forced a few downtown businesses to desegregate, but in most places, Jim Crow didn’t budge. After participating in a regional campaign targeting Howard Johnson’s and Hot Shoppe, residents founded the Greensboro chapter of the Congress On Racial Equality, or CORE, in the summer of 1962. Students from Bennett College, A&T, Dudley High School and Lincoln Junior High launched a wave of pickets at numerous businesses, including cafeterias, theaters and the only McDonald’s in town during the following semester. Things started to reach a tipping point by the end of the school year.   Ezell Blair Jr., one of the A&T Four and the student-body president at the time, was still active in the movement, but participants, including Jackson, emphasize it wasn’t just about a handful of leaders. “While we focus a lot on the four young men who sat in in February [1960], the women at Bennett deserve a much bigger place on the stage because they sustained the struggle after the lights went out,” Jackson said. “The sustaining forces were the women from Bennett and a relatively small group from A&T ‘til [the protests] exploded again in 1963.” One of the people who kept the movement alive was local CORE President Bill Thomas, who joined when he was still in high school. “There was a tiny remnant of girls from Bennett and Bill Thomas and a few people from A&T that kept meeting to keep it going,” Jackson said. “I remember that a group of students — Lewis Brandon, [Robert] Patterson and friends — would always meet and discuss the movement and invariably end up in my room trying to get me to get more involved.” As the spring semester in 1963 drew to a close, and with Jackson elected as the incoming president, the stage was set for thousands to take action and for the mass arrests that would compel the mayor to call for desegregation. Brandon, who still lives in Greensboro and works at the Beloved Community Center, organized a weeklong exhibit on the struggles of 1963 that began a few days after Jackson’s visit last month, culminating in a remembrance and panel discussion. One of the participants, Anthanette Thomas Clark, is Thomas’ sister and helped form the nucleus for the movement at Bennett. In one of the exhibit’s documents — a program for a mass meeting on May 20, 1963 — Clarke is listed as the leader of freedom songs, a duty she filled at the commemorative event as well. By that May, Jackson was active in the struggle — further down on the program he’s named next to the entry, “Report to the people: Current situation of the jailed students.” Above his name in pencil: “Newly elected president of the A&T student body.” Getting involved Jackson was an important addition to the demonstrations, as leader Tony Stanley says in William Chafe’s definitive book Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom. “We needed Jesse as a football player the girls loved,” Chafe quotes Stanley as saying. “We woke him up one day and told him to protest with us and he has been protesting ever since.” Jackson joined a movement already in motion, but drew from a deep foundation. His experiences — like being turned away from the central library in his hometown of Greenville, SC — and his father’s example set him up to be drawn into the struggle. He recalls when his father stood up to a patronizing employer who threatened to kick him. Jackson’s father, who was buffing a floor at a janitorial job, quit rather than be humiliated. Jackson says he was 6 or 7 years old at the time, and he was with his father on the job that day. “My dad walked up and said, ‘Now, you know my condition. My wife is sick. I only work for you. My boys need their Christmas stuff. But you take these keys. I can’t stop you from kicking me and you can’t take the leg back with which you do the kicking. So take these keys,’” Jackson recounted. “That sense of non-negotiable dignity by my dad stands out in my mind today. My courage came from trying to emulate him.” When he arrived at A&T he immersed himself in “the rhythm of school” and football, getting more involved during the 1962-63 school year as his peers encouraged him and teachers instilled an understanding of the broader movement. He remembers when a classmate first asked him to speak at a rally at the gym. “I wasn’t prepared to do that, you know,” Jackson said, smiling, “except explain what we’d been doing. Speaking really came from explaining what we were doing and learning why we were doing it because sometimes the ‘what’ precedes the ‘why,’ but you can act yourself into a way of thinking… and you can think yourself into a way of acting.” That underlying force would propel Jackson even when his mind wasn’t totally made up. He remembers clearly when A&T President Dr. Lewis Dowdy called him and other students into his office to discuss the state legislature’s threats to cut the school’s funding if Dowdy couldn’t keep students in line. Dowdy responded by saying, “We teach them how to think, not what to think,” Jackson said, but as Jackson approached a rally soon after, in early June 1963, he mulled over the chance that students like him were jeopardizing their diplomas. “That was very threatening to us as students,” he said. The movement’s momentum and righteousness swept up thousands of local residents like Jackson, many of whom were willing to be arrested for civil disobedience, resulting in greater numbers in jail than in other cities at the time. As he weighed the consequences, he could tell other students were ready to act. Plus, James Farmer, a CORE leader and movement icon, was in town to lend his support. “They were determined to go to jail and I could hear them saying, ‘We can’t turn back now,’” Jackson said. “I was considering that because I’m thinking about the degree and the march. We got to the steps, to the balcony of the church with Jim Farmer. It became clear to me that we could not go backwards.” Despite his initial pause, Jackson issued a memorable declaration that is now emblazoned on a wall inside Greensboro’s civil rights museum: “Demonstration without hesitation, jail without bail, forward march!”%u2029 Showdown From there, the march headed along East Market Street towards downtown Greensboro. At their target destination in the city’s core, demonstrators filled the streets. “Every time they reached out to us to arrest us we would start praying. We would pray and they would back off,” Jackson said, starting to laugh. “They didn’t want to arrest us while we were praying and had our Bibles in our hands.” As they finished and police moved in, the protesters started singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and again police waited. “They would still arrest us and I was cited for [inciting a] riot,” Jackson said. He wasn’t arrested that night, but later turned himself in when he heard police were looking for him. Jackson’s arrest only spurred further civil disobedience. The growing, repetitive actions and mass arrests made the situation so untenable that Greensboro Mayor David Schenck issued a televised call for desegregation and an end to the protests. Victory was near. The confrontation that led to Jackson’s arrest is far from the only one he remembers. The first time he recalls being on national television, he stood at the front of a march to Morrison’s Cafeteria: “I walked up to Mr. Boyd Morrison I think, and said, ‘Well, we want to eat.’ ‘We will not serve Negroes,’ [he said]. I said, “I don’t want to eat Negroes, I want to eat food.’ ‘We will not serve you.’ I said, ‘Well, I have an appetite.’ ‘We will not serve you!’ ‘We have money.’ ‘We will not serve you!’ I said, ‘Well we’re not leaving.’ The struggle extended beyond Jackson, of course, or 1963 or Greensboro. “This was a high season,” Jackson said, slowly raising his hands like flood waters, “and Greensboro was in the thick of it. Our money was counterfeited. We were non-citizens in our own country. So in many ways the movement in Greensboro, the sit-ins kind of broke the ice but the bigger movement in ‘63 kind of took us to another level of activism. We redefined America using the flag and the Bible as our two weapons.” Jackson’s role Jesse Jackson sat down with YES! Weekly on the second floor of the civil rights museum last month while a fundraising telethon was underway downstairs. As Jackson clipped a microphone to his lapel and before the interview could start, his aide Lenny McAlister, a Davidson graduate with a young, earnest face, handed over a 15-page paper. It’s worth looking over, he said, because there was a lot of great information about those years in it. From the jump, recently deceased UNCG MFA professor Robert Watson’s piece “A Game of Non-Violence in Greensboro, NC,” bills Jackson as a hero. “Jesse Jackson is the idol of all the local teenage Negroes,” wrote Watson, who started at UNCG in 1963. “A tall, handsome athlete, an honor student, and resident of the student body at A&T… Jesse Jackson has the serenity of General Charles De Gaulle when he leads anywhere from 100 to 3,000 marchers up from the Negro section to [downtown].” Other accounts, including parts of Civilities and Civil Rights portray Jackson as a hero, but Chafe said it’s crucial to understand the causal dynamics. “Probably the most important part of the story is how the movement makes Jackson, not how Jackson makes the movement,” Chafe said in an interview. “He was not pivotal to the organizing part of the movement. He became a very important symbol/spokesperson for the movement but he did not make the movement happen. He was a very charismatic and popular figure.” Getting Jackson involved was an important achievement of movement strategists, he said, adding that Jackson obviously deserves credit for his role but that it shouldn’t overshadow Bennett College students, Thomas, Stanley or Brandon. “The real heroine of that movement in some ways is [Bennett President Dr.] Willa Player because she’s the one that stands behind her students and the institution becomes pivotal,” Chafe said. Player was in a different position than Dowdy because she headed a private institution, Chafe said. Jackson highlighted her importance too. “You had Dr. Willa Player at Bennett who was a teacher of women and who was Dr. King’s close friend,” Jackson said when asked about who influenced him at the time. Reiterating the term he used to describe his father’s fortitude, he said, “She had this kind of nervy and non-negotiable dignity. “Dr. Player had this sense of strength,” Jackson said, forming a fist with his right hand. “On A&T’s side, Dr. Sam Proctor was a huge intellectual giant, a profound teacher.” Proctor, who served as A&T’s president during part of Jackson’s time there, was just one of the many teachers and campus leaders whose name Jackson easily called to mind five decades later. Many of them were involved in the movement, or at least sympathetic. “Even Coach [Bert] Piggott,” he said. “You know coaches are real strict about making it back to school on time. [I said] ‘I can not come back on time, I must go to the March on Washington [in August 1963].’ He said, ‘I understand. Hope you’re in shape when you get back.’ “Professor Kilimanjaro, [originally named] John Marshal Stevenson who would teach us drama [and founded] the Carolina Peacemaker newspaper. These professors became very close to us as professors, mentors and friends.” His influences weren’t just academic. Walking through the civil rights museum’s exhibits after the interview, Jackson stopped twice at the same video footage of CORE leader James Farmer in Greensboro, mesmerized. He watched quietly in admiration for a while before reflecting out loud. “He deserves a lot of recognition,” Jackson said. “He was such a dynamic speaker. He was such a national leader with such a profound voice.” The panel At the Beloved Community Center’s commemorative event, Anthanette Thomas Clark reflected on Farmer too. He looked like her dad, she said, and reminded her of her father in other ways. And she remembers him staying at their house like other movement leaders and the Freedom Riders. Despite bomb threats and Klan phone calls, her mother would cook for everyone who stayed at their house. Clark and Pattie Ellis Banks, another Bennett student at the time, recalled moments of fear, like when a group of hecklers on motorcycles surrounded a small group of women picketing outside of McDonald’s in the spring of 1963. “I think I put out my hardest prayer that night,” Clark said. Someone must have passed by and seen them, because before long a “huge group of male students from A&T” came to the rescue. Jackson separately recounted a story of his initial involvement where Bennett students were being harassed and he went with a group from A&T to protect them. It wasn’t immediately clear if it was the same incident, but such things were common. “We were assaulted there several times,” Brandon said. Banks joked that the photos in Brandon’s exhibit, many of them from CORE’s former office and a few depicting Jackson, didn’t show her and that she didn’t want to seem like an impostor. Banks brought a newspaper clipping with a photograph of her being arrested as proof, an act that didn’t thrill her father. “I did not send you down there to go to jail,” she recounted him saying. Later though, Banks’ father was proud. A father’s reaction Audience members shared similar stories of fears and divisions within their families over participation in the struggle in Greensboro. Despite everything Jackson’s father went through, he was more afraid for Jesse and his peers than for himself, Jackson said. One Saturday after a wave of arrests at the library, Jackson’s dad had come in from fishing and soaked his feet in a tub with Epson salts. After asking if the younger Jackson had been involved in the demonstrations, his father cautioned him. “‘[You’re] downtown trying to get something to eat or something like we don’t have food here and it’s kind of embarrassing,’” Jackson said his father told him. “And you know some of them fools might try to bomb this house…’ He was trying to figure out how to say, ‘This is dangerous,’ and they were bombing houses. And [he said], “If you gonna get into that kind of stuff, that marching, you go on back up there at the school where y’all do that kind of stuff.’” It wasn’t just emulating his father’s strength that motivated Jackson to participate so prominently in the movement — it was also a system where people “were stripped of public dignity,” Jackson said. “The Second World War and the Korean War was the backdrop of our sense of freedom,” he said. “My father fought in World War II. Racial segregation on the superficial level was indecent, meaning black soldiers sat behind Nazi prisoners of war on American military buses where Nazi POWs laughed at American military soldiers who were black.” The student It’s clear that Jackson reveres his days at A&T, and the school loves him back. Many younger and newer Greensboro residents easily identify Jackson by sight or name — several approached him outside the civil rights museum last month as he waited to take a break at the Summit Café — but few seem aware that he used to live here. Not so at his alma mater, where he was the commencement speaker during his presidential campaign in 1984 and where there are 17 folders about him in the library’s archives. That’s not including the articles in the A&T Register student newspaper or the Ayantee yearbooks. Jackson speaks highly of “the school that produced [astronaut] Ronald McNair” and Alvin ‘Al’ Attles, a star A&T basketball player at the time who later played for and coached the Golden State Warriors. “See the beauty of the A&T experience, at least for us, was there was nothing a black person could not do or become,” he said.  “Two of our classmates were prepared to do NASCAR racing. They could make a car from screw to screw. There was nothing we could not do and that gave us a sense of inner strength.” Jackson’s name first appeared in the A&T Register for making honor roll. The Register later published three letters from Jackson, the first introducing himself as a candidate for president of the student government association. “My activities here include football, baseball and the Sunday School,” Jackson wrote as a candidate, noting that he was also a delegate to the State Student Legislature. “The student body and the administration need a working relationship; we need to understand each other. Many of our problems stem from tradition and cultural atmosphere; it is time for a change.“ Jackson, a sociology major and Omega Psi Phi fraternity member, saw an opportunity and took it. “I was very visible as an athlete and we thought we could win and we went for it,” he said last month. “We galvanized the student body around basic student body issues. We leveraged that for our mobilization for the social justice struggle but it was not a campaign about that at that time. We matured into that.” By the fall, the student paper was littered with references to Jackson, and the 1964 yearbook contained numerous photos of him — in student government meetings, on the streets, with the football team and on the Pan Hellenic Council. As one Sept. 27, 1963 Register article about his role on the football team stated: “Jesse Jackson, a converted full back and utility player last season, has shown his versatility and has moved in to form a very capable understudy of Gordon. He has lead the second unit exceptionally well in his first season as quarterback.” Jackson wasn’t just versatile on the field — the signal-barking quarterback became an outspoken figure on campus. The same issue of the paper covered his greeting to students at the fall assembly about “a social revolution for justice for all Americans” in one article, and further down the page announced he would speak at the campus’ chapel the following month. In the Nov. 1 issue, one article covered the chapel speech, another noted that he threw two touchdowns and the paper ran his letter to the editor about tensions between students and school administrators. “But as the old system of segregation dwindles, the system of paternalism should leave with it,” he wrote. “Just as the people downtown must adjust to desegregation, so must our administrators adjust to the new student of 1963.” When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated a few weeks later, Jackson officiated and spoke at A&T’s memorial event. His name popped up on less somber occasions, like an April 10, 1964 photo of him and two other students listening to a French-horn player. Jackson’s memories of his days at A&T extend beyond the campus and the movement for other lighter moments, too. “Greensboro was always in the flow,” he said, drawing a circle with his hand, “of social, cultural traffic. There were a couple of great supper clubs here with all the top artists. The kind of ‘chitlin’ circuit’ they called it was from New York to Washington to Raleigh-Durham to Greensboro to Charlotte on down to Atlanta.” Some of the names of places escape him now, but he still listed several people and churches that he remembers fondly. “Greensboro was a really thriving black center,” Jackson said. “Benbow Road [near A&T] was like the real deal. Right off of Benbow Road was a housing project area. We had classmates and friends who stayed there. [Bob] McAdoo went on to become a great basketball player at UNC [and play in the NBA] — his relatives stayed in that area.” Despite other positive memories, it was the people on campus, the nurturing environment of the HBCU and the movement that shaped him more than anything else, Jackson said. Youth movement Jackson and others who were active in Greensboro’s civil rights struggle emphasize the fundamental role youth — college students and younger — played in the freedom struggle. Without the young people who launched and sustained many aspects of the movement and the thousands who joined in, it’s difficult to imagine just how different the city and the region’s history could have been. “What I will often say is the students would march, go to jail, the parents would come screaming for their child to get out of jail and the ministers would come after them to take care of their congregations,” Jackson said. Jackson has aged 50 years since those days, but the determination he and his peers exhibited is still obvious as he commands a room. While he stopped to make calls as part of the telethon, joking with volunteers and talking to people in the museum’s lobby, his aide McAlister talked about Jackson’s infectious spirit. Even before he became a national figure, Jackson conferred some of that spirit to the struggle here, a seemingly innate quality that movement leaders were smart to notice as they convinced him to come to meetings and address crowds. Sometimes it’s apparent in the aura around him, and other times it’s fleeting moments, like when he toured the museum and sat down at the preserved Woolworth’s counter and joked, “We still can’t get service.” After posing for a few photos in the lobby, Jackson conducted an interview with several television stations just as a van full of school kids from Charlotte pulled up. So intent on the interviews until he finished, Jackson seemed not to notice as the waist-high mass flanked him from behind. Without missing a beat, Jackson led them in a few rounds of repeat-after-me reminiscent of his famous appearance on “Sesame Street” and his “I Am Somebody” speech. “Keep hope alive! Never give up! Never surrender! I am! Somebody!” Jackson may be graying at the sideburns but hasn’t forgotten the role of youth in movements to come. If these elementary school kids, heads tilted to look up at him and beaming, didn’t already know about his role, a parent or teacher will hopefully fill them in soon. If these storytellers know what they’re talking about, they’ll be sure to tell their kids about the importance of A&T and Greensboro. Watch part of the interview with Jesse Jackson at