Jackie Robinson's 1959 Greenville visit set change in motion

civil rights downtown airport historic


A.J. Whittenburg, fourth from left, and Willie T. Smith Jr., far right, were among those who marched Jan. 1, 1960, to protest baseball great Jackie Robinson's treatment at Greenville's downtown airport.

Years later it would be called the turning point in Greenville's Civil Rights struggle, the moment by which events are measured before and after.

On New Year's Day in 1960, about 1,000 people converged on Greenville's Municipal Airport with a demand for change. The marchers came from across South Carolina and other states, and they disturbed the perceived balance of the Upstate community.

The march that cold January morning took this city from the sidelines into the heart of the integration fight, and it might have started with Jackie Robinson.

As audiences around the country gear up to see the new Robinson movie, "42," this weekend in theaters, it bears remembering that the man at the film's center walked these streets here. The man who changed baseball also changed Greenville.

"He was a catalyst in many ways, for Greenville's Civil Rights movement," says Courtney Tollison, museum historian at the Upcountry History Museum and assistant professor of history at Furman University.

To understand the protest, you have to back up to three months earlier, to when Robinson came to Greenville to speak at the statewide NAACP conference. Robinson, along with three others, was told to leave the downtown airport's public waiting area. The incident made national headlines and was an embarrassment for Greenville. It also highlighted the deep-seated racial issues here, said Tollison.

The incident became just the spark to ignite an organized push for integration in Greenville. Following the march on the airport was a year of change. Protests moved from the lunch counters to the public library to schools and churches.

"Historians seem to consider Feb. 1, 1960, the sit-ins by the A&T students at the Woolworth's in Greensboro as the first moment where race relations were challenged directly in this way, by a sit-in," Tollison said.

And because historians usually consider that event as the beginning of the movement, Tollison said, "it really adds greater gravitas to the fact that we had an event here in Greenville a month earlier."

A moment that changed things

By the time Jackie Robinson arrived in Greenville on Sunday, Oct. 25, 1959, the mood was already shifting. The Rev. James Hall, the youthful pastor at Springfield Baptist Church, had been holding NAACP meetings at the church for months, and he spoke to the concerns of his congregants.

The youth NAACP movement was growing stronger, and members were questioning the status quo of using separate water fountains, being relegated to the back door of restaurants and being barred from public places.

"The mood was unrest," said Greenville County Councilwoman Lottie Gibson, who was then in her 30s and an active member of the local NAACP chapter. "People don't react to something that they're not upset or excited or displeased with. So it was a mood of unrest and tiredness."

Jackie Robinson played for the Negro Baseball League and the International League before he was recruited by Branch Rickey to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. On April 15 of that year, he became the first person to break the color barrier.

Merl Code, a prominent Greenville lawyer, was not even born when Robinson made history. But when he was old enough to play sports, the name wasn't lost on him. "My community was a baseball kind of town and that was my first love," Code said. "My daddy played baseball as well and, of course, everybody who played the game understood the significance of what Jackie Robinson had done."

Today, the weight of No. 42 still remains, on and off the baseball field. Kendrick Perkins, a right fielder with the Greenville Drive, remembers hearing his grandpa's stories about the man "who changed the game."

"I don't think most of us would be playing the game if it wasn't for him," says the 21-year-old from La Porte, Texas. "I mean, after all that went on, there really was no one else that made a bigger impact than what he did."

By 1959, Robinson had retired from baseball, and was working as vice president of the Chock full o'Nuts company. But he'd remained involved in racial equality issues, becoming heavily involved with the national NAACP.

He was a strategic choice for keynote speaker.

"We looked at him as a glowing example of what it takes to break a tradition that was deeply rooted in hatred and racism," Hall said.

Seventeen hundred people packed Greenville Memorial Auditorium to hear Robinson speak about the fight for integration and the need for widespread voter registration. His speech carried even more weight after his treatment at the downtown airport.

"It dawned on me at that point," Hall said. "This might be the God-given opportunity for us to highlight some of the problems."

Challenging the status quo

The backdrop to what happened to Robinson made the situation all the more poignant, said Tollison. Eight months earlier, in February 1959, an African-American man named Richard Henry filed suit against the airport commission for forcefully removing him from the same waiting room.

Henry was a civil employee of the Air Force who was traveling from Donaldson Air Force Base back to his home in Michigan. The case was argued on the premise that because the airport received federal funds, it could not deny access, Tollison said.

"So that was going on in October, when Robinson comes to town," Tollison said.

Hall recalls that Sunday in October 1959 well. Partly because the pastor, now 81 and a pastor at Triumph Baptist Church in Philadelphia, was so thrilled to meet a personal hero of his and partly for what transpired afterward.

Late that Sunday, A.J. Whittenberg, who would later bring the lawsuit that would integrate Greenville County schools, Hall and his wife Elizabeth drove Robinson back to the airport for his return flight. While the men attended to ticketing business, Elizabeth took a seat in the waiting room. It didn't take long for a police officer to ask her to leave.

She refused and Hall joined her. And Robinson did as well.

When the white officer insisted they move, Robinson offered to stay, even if it meant he would miss his flight.

"I said, no, we'll be OK," Hall recalled.

By then, a crowd had gathered at the airport, and the incident didn't escalate. It was mostly well wishers, said Hall, wanting to see Robinson and get his autograph.

"The airport officials didn't want a scene," Tollison said.

Robinson boarded his plane and no arrests were made.

But Hall was inspired by Robinson's offer of support. At the next NAACP meeting, the pastor discussed a need for action. The idea for a march spread to the statewide NAACP meeting a few weeks later and the date was set.

Jan. 1, 1960

On the day of the protest, groups from around the state gathered at Springfield. Ruby Hurley, the Southeast region director of the NAACP, came up from Atlanta to participate.

Around 1 p.m., the people rallied, and they traveled in cars in the direction of the airport. The plan was to park on 291, where today the Krispy Kreme stands, and to march the mile-long route to the airport together.

A light rain fell that day, maybe some snow, Hall can't quite recall. He was worried, because there had been a rumor that some might try to cause trouble for the marchers, but it went off without incident.

Of this, Hall is certain, the organizers wanted to read their statement of purpose. When the marchers arrived, Hall recalled he and several other pastors went inside the airport terminal. He said the Rev. Matthew McCullough from Orangeburg read a five-point resolution.

The fifth point read: "Be it resolved: that with faith in this nation and its God we shall not relent, we shall not rest, we shall not compromise, we shall not be satisfied until every vestige of racial discrimination and segregation has been eliminated from all aspects of our public life."

Then the Rev. I. DeQuincey Newman led a prayer, said Hall, and Hall read a statement of purpose.

"We wanted to make it absolutely clear we are marching not just for exercise nor just to be in the news," Hall said. "We are marching for a purpose and the purpose is the mistreatment and ill-treatment and the disrespect."

A movement was forming

In the months that followed the march on the airport, Greenville changed. The youth movement gained momentum, thrusting figures like Dorris Wright, Leola Simpson-Robinson and Jesse Jackson to the fore.

There were attempts to integrate the library that spring, and in July, eight students staged a sit-in and were arrested.

The sit-ins began at the lunch counters at Woolworth's and Kress Drugstore, and then moved to the churches. Gibson remembers one pray-in at an all-white church.

"The question was asked by Leola, 'How do you know that God has not sent us to this church this morning?'" she recalled. "And the deacon was so shocked they let them in."

Sixty-six years have passed since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, 54 years have passed since he spoke in Greenville, yet his legacy remains.

Would Greenville have pushed forward without Robinson? Absolutely, said Hall, "there was a movement forming all around the South."

What astounds Hall still to this day, though, is "South Carolina was the first to secede from the union, and yet when we start talking about civil rights and the integration movement, South Carolina was the first, with demonstrations in Greenville."

Lillia Callum-Penson (Published April 13, 2013)