Winston-Salem commemorates 50th anniversary of sit-in victory

by Keith Barber

Victor Johnson Jr. displays a photo of the protesters who participated in the successful sit-in movement that led to the desegregation of Winston-Salem’s lunch counters taken during the 40 th anniversary celebration in 2000. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

On Feb. 8, 1960, Carl Matthews, a graduate of Winston- Salem Teachers College, took a seat at the lunch counter of the Kress store in downtown Winston-Salem and was refused service. Matthews began his protest of the city’s segregated lunch counters exactly one week after four NC A&T University students sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro and were denied service. Matthews’ actions inspired other African-American students at Winston-Salem Teachers College — now Winston-Salem State University — and a number of local high school students to join him in his protest of segregated lunch counters.

On Feb. 23, 10 white Wake Forest University students traveled downtown and joined10 students from Winston-Salem Teachers College and Atkins High School student Patricia Tillman. The 21 students held a joint sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter and were arrested, jailed and found guilty of trespassing. The students from Winston-Salem Teachers College were Royal Joe Abbitt, Everette L. Dudley, Deloris M. Reeves, Victor Johnson Jr., William Andrew Bright, Bruce Gaither, Jefferson Davis Diggs III, Algemenia Giles, Donald C. Bradley, Lafayette A. Cook Jr. and Ulysses Grant Green; and from Wake Forest University were Linda G. Cohen, Linda Guy, Margaret Ann Dutton, Bill Stevens, Joe Chandler, Don F. Bailey, Paul Watson, Anthony Wayland Johnson, George Williamson, and Jerry Wilson. The guilty verdicts were subsequently changed to prayer for judgment continued, but the student arrests sparked further protests and picketing of downtown lunch counters, which led Winston-Salem Mayor Marshall Kurfees to appoint a committee of 10 black citizens and 10 white citizens that included local clergy and downtown businessmen.

On May 23, city officials announced a desegregation agreement to open the city’s lunch counters, and two days later, Carl Matthews was the first black person to be served at an open lunch counter in Winston-Salem. The peaceful resolution of the protest marked the first sit-in victory in North Carolina.

On Tuesday, the city of Winston-Salem commemorated the 50 th anniversary of the historic moment in the civil rights movement with a number of special ceremonies including a presentation by students from Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy, a noon celebration at the site of the original Kress store at 4th and Liberty streets, and a screening of Mary Dalton and Susan Faust’s documentary film, I’m Not My Brother’s Keeper, at Winston-Salem State on Tuesday evening.

Victor Johnson Jr., one of the sit-in protesters and a member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth School Board, said he and his fellow students first heard of Matthews’ protest on the radio and decided to join him on Feb. 9.

“When we came into those lunch counters, they would close them down,” Johnson explained. “We’d leave that lunch counter — we’d leave Kress then go to Woolworth’s and they would close down. As we would leave, they would open up again. We’d come back and they would close them down again.”

And so it went for two weeks until the group of white Wake Forest students joined the African-American students.

“There was a sense of the moral wrongness of separate drinking fountains, separate restrooms, separate entrances to movie theaters — it just all seemed like it was a moral affront,” said Bill Stevens, one of the Wake Forest student protestors. “But I don’t see us as being crusaders. We weren’t crusaders. We saw an opportunity to take a stand and took a stand, but did not have overblown notions about the changes that would come from that event.”

Johnson said the actions of the Wake Forest students marked a turning point in the protest.

“People have failed to realize that the white kids gave us the type of impetus and the support that was needed,” Johnson said. “I think they were caught off guard when those white kids joined us. It made the community think about what they were doing.”

Howell Smith, a history professor at Wake Forest, said the historical context of the sit-in protest should not be overlooked.

“Society was ripe for this to be an effective time,” Howell said. Howell said African-American men that had served in the military had enjoyed equality in the service that was not reflected in society, and that helped spark the sit-in movement.

Johnson, a former Army paratrooper, recalled an incident in 1954 when he and a number of other African

American soldiers were asked to move to the back of a bus.

“We protested it,” Johnson said. “We said, ‘Hell no, we’re not going to back of the bus, we paid the same fare.’ That was quelled ‘cause they sent us on down in that bus and ran another bus to pick up the other customers in Greensboro.”

Johnson said that was his first experience with a successful protest.

“Once you stand up and demand some attention and demand some things, you get some things changed,” he said.

After serving overseas in an integrated military, Johnson returned to Winston-Salem to find that nothing had changed with respect to race relations.

“I had served my country, and all of us felt we deserved better than we were getting,” Johnson said. “You just have a burning desire when people tell you about what you can’t do, and you’re a citizen of a country, and you say, ‘Why can’t I do this? Why are you treating me this way?’” Howell said most likely, the Wake Forest students didn’t realize the magnitude of their actions at the time.

“I don’t want to say that what I and the nine other students did was all that great and noble,” Stevens said. “We were not heroes — we were just 10 students that were swept up by what was going on in the South.… There was an energy in the air that we connected with, but I don’t think we had any idea that what we did here would be remembered 50 years later.”

NC Rep. Larry Womble, one of the organizers of the 50 th anniversary celebration, said the city of Winston-Salem should be proud of the fact that the sit-in protestors included both black and white students and citizens, and the protest was resolved without violence.

“There were people from all over Winston- Salem — everybody would converge downtown,” Womble said. “You’re talking about togetherness during that time. That was really togetherness because there was a common goal that everybody was seeking — fairness, equality, and to sit down and be served.”

NC Rep. Earline Parmon said the contribution of area high students to the sit-in movement should not be overlooked, which is why the student presentations at Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy on Tuesday held even greater significance.

“That will bring them some relevancy in terms of what happened and how it happened and let [students] know why we can live peacefully,” Parmon said.

Stevens said the Wake Forest student protestors endured a backlash of criticism on campus and in the community after they were arrested. Stevens said his wife, Margaret, received hate letters as well as letters of support. The number of positive letters of support, however, outweighed the hate mail. One particularly moving letter came from the wife of a Wake Forest philosophy professor.

“She was in the hospital having just given birth to her first child and thanked [Margaret] for helping make a better world for her child to grow up in,” Stevens said.

Johnson said the Wake Forest students took a much bigger risk considering their position in society, and credited their involvement with helping bring the protest to a swift resolution.

“Those white kids at Wake Forest had a lot to lose,” Johnson said. “They caught a lot of flak when they stepped forward and said, ‘This is wrong; we’re going to join these kids at Winston-Salem State because this is wrong. We’ve got to change this.’” “We didn’t catch any kind of flak from our neighborhood because we were changing some things for our betterment,” Johnson continued. “But they already had it all. They didn’t have to step forward.”

Johnson said the administration at Winston- Salem State was generally supportive of the students’ actions but prohibited demonstrations on campus. After Matthews’ initial sit-in protest, the demonstrations lasted 107 days. During that time, people in the community expressed support and concern for the protesters, Johnson said.

“There were some people that were afraid for us,” he said. “There were some that thought we pushed it too far. My parents told me to take it easy, try not to get hurt, but they didn’t tell me to stop it.”

And because Johnson and his fellow protesters never stopped, Winston-Salem enjoys the distinction of being the site of the first sit-in victory in the state, a key moment in the greater civil rights movement. Stevens said he hoped that Tuesday’s ceremonies would not only serve as a time of reflection but a time for looking forward to the civil rights struggles of today.

“There are other issues that are so important, and I’m thinking particularly of the gap between the rich and the poor,” Stevens said.

Still, Stevens, Johnson and the dozens of student protesters who brought equality to lunch counters in Winston-Salem have earned their place in history.

“What we did was just a single thread in a vast tapestry stretching all the way back to the beginning of the 19th century,” Stevens said. “There were so many people who gave so much of their time and so much of their energy. They’re the heroes. We were bit players in a vast historical drama.”