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The sit-in that changed Charleston

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The sit-in that changed Charleston

The protesters, well-dressed and respectful, were united in their efforts, supportive of one another. They remained silent except to pray.

It was just another episode — and not a particularly dramatic one at that — of the long civil rights movement. But the one-day sit-in at the S.H. Kress & Co. lunch counter in Charleston in 1960 signaled a sea change.

It was that spring when the baton was passed from the established leadership in the black community, the pastors and NAACP officials, to the students who would quickly man the front lines and begin the arduous task of transforming the country at the grass-roots level.

For Charleston, the Kress sit-in disrupted a long history of denial and avoidance, of civility and patience and quiet reserve. It set off a small, rippling wave that would join other waves elsewhere in the South and become a tsunami. It propelled the city into the thick of the civil rights movement and in one fell swoop upset the status quo.

“Our parents were concerned because we did it without their knowledge,” protester Harvey Gantt, now 70, remembered. “Even colleagues at school didn’t know because we wanted the element of surprise.”

On that Friday, April 1, 1960, students from Burke High School gathered at a Kress counter at King and Wentworth streets, a place previously off-limits to blacks. They were inspired by a series of sit-ins set off by the first one, which took place on Feb. 1 that year in Greensboro, N.C.

They had planned for months, meeting at the home of NAACP branch President J. Arthur Brown, learning the art of nonviolent resistance.

What would happen if they were attacked? In Greensboro and elsewhere, student activists had suffered great indignities — name-calling and taunts, coffee poured atop their heads, food flung in their faces, punches and slaps and worse.

Little of that came to pass here. Shortly before 11 a.m., 24 students took their places upon the stools, waited and watched. They were not served. They were told to leave. They did not leave. They hummed songs and recited the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm.

At 4:50 that afternoon, the store was cleared of customers and closed to the public. Police came and arrested the protesters, 16 boys and eight girls, and corralled them in the court room. Bail was set at $10 each.

Brown bailed them out that evening. Attorney Matthew Perry defended them, and the trespassing charges soon were dropped. The Kress store was quiet over that weekend, but something new had happened in Charleston. A threshold had been crossed, and there was no turning back.

This pivotal event will be remembered today when a historic marker is unveiled at the building on King Street. Guest speakers will include Minerva Brown King, daughter of J. Arthur Brown, and Cecelia Gordon Rogers. Both were among the original demonstrators.

Many of the young students kept their plan secret. They wanted to ensure an element of surprise. They also feared the response of their families, or worried that such political activism could put their parents at risk. What if unsympathetic employers perceived a threat? What if mom or dad got fired?

“Dad worked at the old Navy Yard, so (we) had to be very careful,” said Shirley Latten Pinnacle, whose brother Alvin Latten participated in the sit-in. “(Alvin) did it undercover. Our parents didn’t know.”

Latten, who lives in Detroit and is recovering from a stroke that inhibits communication, left his mother a note before heading off to Kress, his sister said.

“She was frightened about it, worried about my father and everything,” Pinnacle said. Their father was the only breadwinner and had 11 children to take care of. “I don’t remember dad ever saying anything.”

He did not lose his job, and Latten’s mother appreciated the heads-up. Active in her church and aware of civil rights developments, she knew why her son felt compelled to join the sit-in.

Cecelia Gordon Rogers, then 18, kept the plans secret for six months, until the morning she put on her good clothes and left for the store.

“That morning in the bathroom I told my mother what would happen later that day,” she said.

Her mother was startled, a little frightened, but she gave Rogers her blessing and promised her support. She was a silk presser who worked for a private cleaners; Rogers’ father was a stevedore.

As many as 60 people were involved, but the nucleus of protesters was small, Rogers said. Youth leaders had been assigned, people such as James Gilbert Blake, who went through national nonviolence training (later, he would become pastor of Morris Brown AME Church). John Campbell was the youth leader who oversaw Rogers’ group.

This was no small matter for a divided black community, Rogers said. Now that young people were getting involved in the freedom movement, many of Charleston’s blacks could no longer sit idly by. They had to take sides. They had to throw their support behind the activists or remain complacent, satisfied with the status quo.

Many resisted overt protest. Many preferred the relative peace and quiet of segregation.

“No one wanted riots and upheavals in Charleston, South Carolina,” said Rogers, today the principal of the Charleston Development Academy Public Charter School.

“Something distinct about the Kress sit-ins is they were all high school students,” said Jon Hale, a professor of history and education at the College of Charleston who specializes in the civil rights era. The youngest student involved was 16, he noted, calling the event a “testament to Burke,” which at the time was raising awareness and encouraging activism.

“As a historian of the civil rights movement, I wanted to see education (recognized).”

In other places, college students led the charge, joining sit-ins, becoming Freedom Riders and canvassing the Deep South to get disenfranchised blacks registered to vote. But locally, “the College of Charleston and Citadel were still segregated, so by default the black high school had to step up,” Hale said.

The effect of the sit-ins, here and elsewhere, was profound and immediate. It radicalized the movement, Hale said. “It got established leaders to move faster.” By the summer of 1963, blacks were boycotting businesses along King Street, including The News and Courier.

As blacks mobilized, recalcitrant whites pushed back harder. The White Citizens Councils kicked into a high gear and unrest began to drive white residents to the suburbs, Hale said.

With the sit-ins, which continued on and off for more than a year after the Kress episode, Charleston was no longer a city on the margins of the civil rights movement, dipping its toes into the rushing waters. It was fully immersed. “That’s where I see the significance (of Kress),” Hale said.

Harvey Gantt was 17 when he joined the Kress sit-in. He saw the opportunity clearly.

“Some of us who were involved in the NAACP Youth Council and followed the civil rights movement very closely ... always thought about segregation as being wrong, but never thought of specific things we could do because much of the movement played out in the courts,” said Gantt, an architect who famously desegregated Clemson University in 1963 and later served as Charlotte’s first black mayor. “So when the Greensboro college students sat in on February 1, we found a way we could get involved directly.”

Such direct action was designed to invalidate state segregation laws and challenge the federal government to enforce the U.S. Constitution. It would serve as a useful, if dangerous, tactic through 1965, when the Selma-Montgomery march finally motivated leaders in Washington to pass the Voting Rights Act.

“We didn’t really make a huge distinction between college campus protests and (the action of high school students),” said Gantt. “We just thought anybody could do this.”

Rogers said the students had a built-in advantage. They were teenagers — well-dressed, respectful, nonviolent — determined to right a wrong that Police Chief William Kelly, who tended to have good relations with members of the black community, may well have recognized as an injustice.

“There was not the urgency to harm or lock up students,” she said of the Charleston police.

But it wasn’t like the sit-in was without fallout. Kress employees removed stool seats to prevent others from joining the protest, and Woolworth’s around the corner kept a sharp eye out for any signs of unrest so that it might avoid a similar confrontation.

Rogers was called to testify at a court hearing on the Kress protest. Matthew Perry represented the students; he had experience with similar events and knew well what to do. The judge wanted names, he wanted details about the organizations involved, about the number of days spent in preparation. He was looking for evidence of conspiracy, Rogers said.

But this was a grass-roots effort, initiated primarily by the students, with advisory support from adults. It was a popular revolt.

In the end, the experience caused Rogers to view the world differently and marked the beginning of a long career devoted to justice, education and community service.

“It had a profound impact on me,” she said. “It gave me the knowledge that each of us can truly (effect) changes, depending on how we go about it.”

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at

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