* Code added to make Google search more likely. Mississippi Civil Rights--One Man, One Story: A Day at the Woolworth Lunch Counter--May 28, 1963

Friday, October 19, 2007

A Day at the Woolworth Lunch Counter--May 28, 1963

Photo: I knew I wanted to use this photo from the infamous Jackson, MS, Woolworth Counter Sit-in for today's post. It's easy to find and "borrow" a copy of this image on the internet and I hope your first reaction was the same as I had when the search engine displayed the image--I felt a sickness in my stomach.

There are a lot of ugly things that have gone on throughout this world over the course of time. There were a lot of ugly things that went on in Mississippi during this era. The "tectonic plates" of our culture had been pushing against each other for decades, and in the 1960's that energy was released in an earthquake of emotions and violence. It brought out the worst in some and the best in others. Do we need to rehash these things and open old wounds, or do we put these things to rest and move forward together into the future? I don't know where the balance is on this question and I will probably struggle with it on future posts. My focus will be on those who risked and sacrificed for positive changes, but to tell those stories you have to also include the ugliness.

Yesterday I received an email from Hunter Gray. In 1963 Hunter Gray was known as Professor John R. Slater, Jr. of Tougaloo College. On May 28, 1963, Professor Slater was sitting with two of his students at this Woolworth counter in Jackson, MS, the trio being abused in the above photo. You can read Hunter's first hand account of the incident at this link. I swapped emails with Hunter in 2006 regarding a bit of family history so he was among those who received my email about this blog, and I appreciate the words of encouragement he sent about the blog. It was an interesting bit of timing since I had already planned to use this photo prior to receiving his email.

Hunter and my father first met in 1979 at a symposium held by Tougaloo College and Millsaps College to mark the 15th anniversary of the events of 1964. It was their first and last meeting as my father passed away a few weeks later. My guess is that Hunter and Robert greatly respected the other for their courage and commitment, they basically agreed on the goals that needed to be achieved, and they disagreed on the methods needed to achieve those goals. That's okay. Hunter pushed the envelope and my dad felt the need for a less explosive approach. It took a multitude of methods to deal with a problem of this magnitude and there was no absolute right or wrong method.

As I continue to post in the future, I don't want anyone to think that I feel my dad's way was the best way or the only way. He did things in a manner that fit his beliefs, personality and opportunities. My father would have never taken Hunter's approach and Hunter would have never taken my father's approach--fortunately we had many people in all walks of life fighting to correct the injustices of the past. My goal is expressed in the title of this blog, I want to primarily focus on one man and how he did what he could to right a wrong.

Post: Here's just a quick post to go along with all of the above commentary. In hindsight, amazingly small things were causes for great uproars in the 60's. My father's volunteerism in numerous community organizations gave him the opportunity to make seemingly subtle changes that were actually seen as great offenses at the time. In his role as President at Goodwill Industries, his decision to remove the signs referring to race from the bathroom doors inspired an unknown poet to write the following:

"Robert took the signs down,
At Goodwill we are told;
To lessen racial friction,
How could he be so bold?

The thing that really happened
Is that Robert saw the need
To take the signs off bathrooms
So that integration could proceed.

Robert's just the same as all the rest
Of all the business men
Who are content to ride the crest
That ends no telling when.

They are content to sit around
And let the liberal left
Completely ruin this mighty town
With all their gradualness.

The subject that we have to face
Is what we're going to do.
Will Merle and Robert have the place
To integrate us, too?

They tell me that the two are true
To mixing as ideal.
I say let's let'em mix anew
Their own to show their zeal."

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