Library sit-in by 'Greenville Eight' a 'defining moment' for civil rights here

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Greenville News/FILE

High school and college students Jesse Jackson, Hattie Smith Wright, Joan Mattison Daniel, Elaine Means, Dorris Wright, Benjamin Downs, Dr. Margaree S. Crosby marched on the "white" Greenville County public library July 16, 1960.


The wave of rebellion was beginning to swell across the American South. They were young, idealistic and passionate, hungry to mold a lasting, more-dignified history for their race and culture.

And they no longer wanted their black skin color to deny them the right to read.

On July 16, 1960, eight college and high school students swallowed their fear and marched on the "white" Greenville County public library then located on North Main Street.

On July 16, 2005, six members of the "Greenville Eight" -- including the most celebrated of them, the Rev. Jesse Jackson -- gathered in prayer at the jail they were locked into for refusing to leave a segregated library on that Saturday afternoon 45 years earlier.

An afternoon, Jackson says, that was a defining moment in the fight for civil rights in Greenville -- whether the students realized at the time the importance of it or not.

"It was the beginning of a certain dynamic in Greenville for rebelling against that system," Jackson told The Greenville News. "I didn't realize just how pregnant the moment was for change. It was an historic moment, a scary moment and, yet, a beautiful moment."

It was Christmas break 1959 when Jackson returned home to Greenville from the University of Illinois -- four years since Rosa Parks first refused to give up her seat at the front of that bus in Montgomery, Ala., and a volatile time when blacks who spoke out would find crosses burning in their yards.

Jackson was a college freshman and walked down to the segregated "colored library" in search of research materials for some school work he wanted to do over the break.

The black library on McBee Avenue was woefully small. The librarian, Jeanette Smith, worked hard to stock the library with as many books as possible, but oftentimes it took as long as a week to receive books requested from the white library.

The librarian told him that she couldn't get the reference materials he wanted for another six days. That would be too late. He would have to return to Illinois before the books could come.

Jackson says he walked to the white library on North Main to get the books himself. As he made his request inside those forbidden walls, Jackson says only he, the librarian and two police officers were in the building.

It was yet another in a long line of insults, rekindling the sting of when the Sterling High School football team he played on was forced to sit on cinder blocks to watch the Greenville High team that refused to play them.

"Before I left, I told them, 'I intend on using this library this summer,'" Jackson says.

And he did, along with seven of his peers playing their parts in the legacy of the civil rights movement.

The protesters were not the incorrigibles that those who resisted desegregation at the time would have liked to make them out to be, said Davida Mathis, a Greenville attorney and steering committee member of the local of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition that Jackson founded.

The eight: Jackson, Elaine Means, Benjamin Downs, Hattie Smith Wright, Dorris Wright, Margaree Seawright Crosby, Joan Mattison Daniel and Willie Joe Wright.

They dressed in suits and ties and floral dresses, all model citizens from good families, she says.

Mathis remembers the buzz of the sit-ins when she was 4. "It set the black community on fire," she says. "It was a very revolutionary and forward-thinking stand at the time."

The eight gathered at Springfield Baptist Church, which at the time was a magnet for civil rights activism, led by a charismatic young pastor, the Rev. James Hall. On the morning of July 16, the eight marched to the library and were told they would be arrested.

They left, Jackson says. When they returned to the church, Jackson says Hall asked them why they had come back. He sent them back, instructing them that incarceration was OK and, in fact, expected.

"When you're a teenager and you're taken off to jail," Jackson says, "knowing how brutal society was at the time, I think it was more terrifying for the parents than it was for us."

The group was not locked up long. Activist Tony Shelton had already gathered the money to bail them out, Mathis says.

The sit-in and lock-up was just the beginning.

The group's defiance, Greenville historian Judy Bainbridge says, was a significant piece of Greenville history, a demonstration that marked a busy year in the local quest for equality.

On Jan. 1, 1960, hundreds of activists marched on the Greenville city airport to protest segregation. The October before, Bainbridge says a woman helping escort baseball legend Jackie Robinson to his flight was told to leave the white-only waiting room.

A.J. Whittenberg, a black activist and gas station owner in town, and the Rev. Hall and his wife, drove Robinson to the airport. As the three men bought a plane ticket, Hall's wife was ordered from the waiting room.

Young blacks who had come to the airport to meet Robinson were incensed, calmed eventually by the three men. Amid the library sit-in, blacks in Greenville began taking seats at the forbidden dining counters of Woolworth's, following a nationwide trend first made famous in Greensboro, N.C., in February 1960.

The library sit-in was a salient mark on the struggle for equality in Greenville during that time, Bainbridge says, though she believes it often gets overlooked in today's reflections on Greenville's past.

"I don't think it's remembered particularly well locally," Bainbridge says, "but I think people try not to remember a lot of things that happened in the early 1960s. The significance was that it came so early. It wasn't about swimming with whites. Here, it was a matter of reading."

Eric Connor

Source: GREENVILLE NEWS/File

On July 16, 1960, eight students were arrested for trying to integrate the Greenville County Library. The eight were photographed with their attorneys on the steps at Greenville Municipal Court where they appeared to face charges. Pictured are front row, from left, Joan Mattison Daniel, Elaine Means, Margaree Seawright Crosby, Dorris Wright and Hattie Smith Wright. Second row, Jesse Jackson and Benjamin Downs. Back row, Willie Joe Wright and attorneys, Willie T. Smith Jr. and Donald Sampson.

Source: THE GREENVILLE NEWS/File

Librarian Charles Stowe closed the Greenville Public Library after eight students tried to integrate it July 16, 1960.