Council incubated many of county's black leaders

civil rights historic

Some call organization founded in 1971 one of the most effective civil rights groups of its time

Many Greenvillians may not remember its name, or even that it ever existed at all. But in the 1970s, it was 80 members strong. And its roll was filled with names of young people -- some barely out of their teens -- who today are still working to make Greenville a better place.

The group was called the Black Council for Progress (BCP).

It was a murky mix of fearlessness and frustration that energized Dr. William F. Gibson to organize a civil rights group in 1971.

The preceding year, the Rev. J.W. Henderson's run for City Council had ended in defeat, marking another lost bid for political office by black people. A planned victory celebration erupted into fierce quarreling among those who had worked to get Henderson elected.

"It got real heated," S.T. Peden recalls, "almost to the point of blows among us, in terms of finger-pointing. But we decided not only were we not going to destroy one another, we were going to stay together."

The pain of defeat birthed the BCP, which some Greenville residents now see as one of the most effective civil rights groups of its time.

"I think a lot of people got jobs, a lot of people were put on boards and commissions because of the activities of the BCP," says Horace Nash, who served as its first secretary.

"We were young folks who wanted to see progress. We felt the NAACP wasn't moving fast enough. They were not aggressive enough. The leadership of the NAACP was older, and they didn't want to relinquish the positions they had. So we just started the Black Council for Progress."

The 1970s were filled with uncertainty, says Max Heller Greenville mayor through that decade. County schools were newly integrated, and the BCP had many concerns surrounding the process. "They were concerned about job opportunities, equal opportunity. They sort of watched what was happening. It was a positive group, very helpful," Heller says.

In the few short years of its existence, the BCP served as a lightning rod for local change. By the end of the '70s the group had dissolved, but Greenville had seen its first black state representative, Theo Mitchell, and its first black County Council member, Bishop Johnnie Smith.

The BCP's members were the children of the civil rights years, some native Greenvillians, some not. Gibson, Peden, Nash, Dr. Willis H. Crosby Jr. and Christine Sweeney were among those who met weekly at the Evangelistic Temple, then on Hudson Street.

Smith, who still heads that church, credits many opportunities available to blacks in Greenville today to the group of young visionaries.

Under the leadership of Gibson, the BCP's first chairman, the community saw raw emotions channeled into action.

The BCP established committees, appointed chairmen and came up with a motto -- "For the Oppressed, Against the Oppressor" -- and a song.

"Our theme song was 'United We Stand, Divided We Fall,'" Gibson recalls. "Sometimes those old guys who had been through some things would be singing with tears in their eyes."

The group distributed a regular newsletter, monitored desegregation at schools, fought to get voter registration books into communities so more blacks could vote, pushed to get single-member districts, and worked to educate the black community on a variety of issues, including the political process. Its agenda also focused on other pressing issues of the day: suspensions of black students, jail conditions, police brutality, employment opportunities and economic parity.

"There was a time when no politician ran for office in Greenville who did not knock down doors to get before the Black Council for Progress," Peden says. "We would invite everybody -- Republicans and Democrats. We always said we had no permanent friends and no permanent enemies; we had permanent issues that we dealt with."

Peden credits Gibson for much of the BCP's success.

"I tell folks there have been a lot of contributions, but I don't know of an individual anywhere who has given himself like Gibson has to the cause of civil rights," Peden says. "He basically gave up his dental practice."

A native of Darlington, Gibson was molded for civil rights leadership in his hometown. "They had a fellow down there whom to some extent I may have been trying to emulate. His name was Arthur Stanley. 'Man' Stanley, they called him. He led the NAACP down there. He was a man," Gibson says.

At a time when fear and threats fueled oppression, "I saw him as somebody who wasn't scared." Gibson saw a bit of himself in Stanley. "I wasn't afraid of nobody or nothing."

In time, he would come across others willing to risk their own and their family's lives and jobs for equality.

Christine Sweeney was one of them. She had grown up in the Fieldcrest community with a proud heritage: a great-grandfather who founded two churches in Greenville County and a well-respected grandfather.

Her grandfather was a humble, friendly man, she says, "but you didn't take his kindness for weakness. He would always say, 'Let your word be your bond.'" From him, Sweeney learned never to be afraid to speak her mind.

She was one of several female members of the BCP. A petite woman whose youthfulness belies her 49 years, she now serves on the executive board of the Greenville NAACP and works in the county school district's payroll department. Even today, she says, she doesn't hesitate to speak out against injustice.

Unlike Sweeney's involvement, Peden's was part of a transformation. While in college, he had hung in the rear of protests because of his father's warning that if Peden ever got into trouble, "I was on my own," he recalls.

Alongside other students at South Carolina State University, Peden tested the waters, participating in protests, but always at the rear, and always retreating if arrests were made.

But by the 1970s, after his father's death, Peden was not only at the forefront of protests but often leading the charge.

A charter BCP member, Peden took over as head of the group when Gibson became NAACP Greenville branch president in 1974. And as Gibson rose to state NAACP president, Peden moved into the branch position.

When hotels in Greenville were desegregated in the 1960s, Peden worked behind the scenes on a biracial committee formed to ensure a smooth transition.

Decades later, when the Peace Center and the Bi-Lo Center were built, he says, "they put together a committee to work with contractors to ensure the utilization of minority-owned businesses and contractors. I served as chairman of both those committees."

In the late 1990s, after a rash of shootings involving law enforcement officers, Peden, 57, served on a committee to help keep the lines of communication open.

Nash came up through the ranks of the NAACP. And though he was just 27 when the BCP came along, he'd experienced so much he was hungry for change.

In the late 1950s, when Nash was 14, he had been recruited to serve food at Springfield Baptist Church when baseball great Jackie Robinson spoke there.

Robinson's subsequent treatment at the Greenville Downtown Airport -- he reportedly was threatened with arrest for refusing to leave the white waiting room -- led to a protest march. Nash participated in that and other protests to integrate local public facilities.

"Out of our working that night, the NAACP Youth Council was organized," he says. Nash served as that group's first vice president and later its president.

"The climate was very hostile, very frightening," Nash says of those days. "We were young enough that we didn't realize the danger that we were getting ourselves involved in."

In the 1960s, he led several protests. "I've been involved with the NAACP off and on for 40 years," the 57-year-old says. He has worked as an English teacher at Greenville Technical College and as director of the after-school program at Phillis Wheatley Center. "I've always believed that you have to give something back to make it better for somebody else," he says.

Dr. Willis Crosby Jr., former BCP member and president/CEO of SHARE, learned a similar lesson from his parents, Alwillie Hardy Crosby and Willis Crosby Sr.

Crosby, the older of two children, grew up in a home where education was stressed.

Both parents were "my heroes," he says. They instilled in him a desire to make life better for all. Today, he works to level the playing field for the poor.

"Research is showing that one of the major urban trends over the next 50 years will be the growing disparity between those who have and those who have not. So I'm in a good position to be able to impact upon that as an advocate and head of an anti-poverty agency."

Like other members of the BCP, Gibson has a long list of service. After serving as state NAACP president, he was elected chairman of the national board in the mid-1980s and served until 1995.A towering figure who laughs freely, the 68-year-old Gibson says he has never worked with a more effective group than the BCP.

"I used to tell folk when I was chairman of the board of the NAACP, 'If I could get a group as strong as the Black Council up here at this level, we could change some things," he says.

While the BCP didn't spark a national movement like some grass-roots efforts in the 1960s, Gibson says, "It gave the community a sense ... that it could do more for itself to correct some of the injustices than it had been doing."

The BCP didn't change the world, Gibson says, "but it helped darken a few doors."

Kathy Spencer-Mention