Jesse Jackson and Sterling High classmates played pivotal role in civil rights

civil rights historic

It started with a simple belief, but it proved to be revolutionary.

"We were convinced that there was nothing wrong with us," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said of his classmates at Sterling High School half a century ago. "Something was wrong with the society."

That sense of self-worth and determination shared by members of the former all-black school's Class of 1959 produced at least two doctors, several college professors, a college dean, a judge, numerous successful business people — and a world-famous civil rights leader.

As members of the class return to their alma mater this weekend for their 50th reunion, all that remains of the school that burned during a school dance in 1967 is the gym where they held their graduation ceremonies.

But they return to "a new Greenville, a new South Carolina and a new South," in Jackson's words. "And we helped to make it so."

The 180 members of Sterling's Class of '59 were part of "the breakthrough generation" that pushed for a new way of life that is almost taken for granted today, Jackson said.

"It's important for history for us to know where we've come from to appreciate where we are," he said.

Among those who broke through from that class are Dr. Margaree Seawright Crosby, professor emerita and retired head of the department of elementary and early childhood education at Clemson University. She was the first black woman to be named a full professor at Clemson.

One of four daughters of a single mother, she was pushed toward a career as a tailor but with help from her mom and sister managed to go to college.

"It was just built within me that this was something I wanted to do," she said. "I had to do it."

Along with Jackson, she was one of the "Greenville Eight" who were arrested for trying to use the all-white Greenville library during the summer after their first year away from home.

A 22-year survivor of breast cancer, she now travels around the country to get word out about prevention and detection of that disease.

For Class of '59 member Richard Kerns, the doors opened for a career in the National Football League after graduating college, only to slam shut again. After being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, he was drafted by the Selective Service System and never got to play a game.

But he won honors as the second-fastest member of the U.S. armed forces in 1965, and opened the way for another black Greenville football star — Dextor Clinkscale — to make it with the Cowboys in 1980.

Kerns, who was a halfback on the Sterling High team that Jackson quarterbacked. still remembers Jackson's power as a passer.

"He could stand on the one-yard line and knock you down with a pass on the 50," Kerns said. "When we were in the huddle and he'd call a pass for me, he'd say, 'Now you can either eat it or catch it, because it's going to be there.'"

And it usually was.

Jackson, at the urging of the late Dan Foster, former sports editor of The Greenville News , went on to play college football in Illinois but made his mark in politics rather than sports.

In the early days, though, the concept of racial integration seemed so radical that even some parents of the Class of '59 questioned some of their kids' efforts.

Jackson recalled his father's words after he had created a stir by trying to eat with the white folks at Woolworth's lunch counter in downtown Greenville.

"I see you on television trying to get to eat downtown like you're hungry. You're embarrassing us," the elder Jackson had said. "If you're going to do that kind of stuff, you need to go back up there to that school where y'all do that kind of stuff up yonder."

In later years, when Jackson's picture was on the cover of national magazines, his dad would proudly say, "This is my boy," the founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and 1984 presidential candidate said.

Ironically, it was his father's stories about how blacks had fewer rights on American military bases during World War II than Nazi POW's did that had sparked Jackson's fire for civil rights, he said.

The library incident had started as Jackson's attempt to get books he needed for a speech contest.

Home for Christmas break after his first semester in college, he had told the librarian at the "colored branch" on McBee Avenue about the books he needed. She said she didn't have them but would try to get a librarian at the central library to get them for him.

"I ran from McBee Avenue all the way to North Main Street where the library was at that time," Jackson recalled. "I got there, and two policemen were there."

He was turned away.

"I went back in the back of the library, and I stood there and I cried, because it said 'public library.'"

But it marked a turning point for Jackson.

"I said this summer, I intend to use the library," he recalled. "It was like it was resolute in my mind. Well, they (other members of his Sterling class) were thinking the same thoughts."

As were other blacks in Greensboro, Nashville and elsewhere, Jackson recalled.

"It was like a pregnant moment, you know."

The following July, Jackson and others made their stand at Greenville's whites-only library and got arrested. And a new phase in the civil rights movement began.

Jackson's landmark run for the Democratic nomination for president 25 years ago was among the high points of the past 50 years for the Class of '59. A group of them went to the Democratic National Convention, where they were swarmed by reporters.

"We were like celebrities," Crosby said.

Now, with a black man in the White House, Jackson says it's "midday" for minorities politically — but it's "midnight" economically.

America's poor are suffering the worst in the current recession, he said.

Banks are charging too much interest for student loans on money they got at low interest from the federal government, he said. Minorities have been targeted for subprime mortgages and are seeing a disproportionate share of foreclosures, he said.

And poverty is shutting out access to health care to people who are the least healthy, he said.

"The idea of insuring everybody is the morally right thing to do," Jackson said. "Ultimately, it's cost beneficial. Sick bodies cost more than well bodies. And we must have a comprehensive health-care plan for America."

Looking back 50 years, to when he and his classmates were fresh-faced upstarts in a nation divided by color, the big truth that has become obvious to him is: "We are all one."

"On our best days, when we embrace and protect each other, we all win. On our worst days, when we don't protect each other, we all lose," he said.

"That's the lesson that we learn after 50 years of struggle –— that we either rise together as brothers and sisters or we sink together foolishly because we did not get the real message of relationships."

And to his fellow Sterling High graduates of 1959, he says: "I am so proud of this class."