Former student activists reflect on impact of their work in 1963 - - Columbia, South Carolina

Former student activists reflect on impact of their work in 1963


For a movement to take off, they say the time has to be right, the cause has to be worth the risk, and there has to be a feeling that change is possible.

"It was a wonderful time to be involved in a movement," said photographer Cecil Williams. "Especially in movement that ended in us ultimately achieving many more of our freedoms and the equality that we wanted and deserved."

The images of the Greensboro Four lunch counter sit-ins no doubt inspired the student activism movement in Columbia and Orangeburg in the early 1960's: Pictures of students covered in ketchup and spit, ridiculed but undeterred.

Young people at Allen, Benedict, Claflin, and South Carolina State College saw it as the time to act, said Williams.

"They tried to blame it on outside agitators thinking that more or less that their own people would not rise up and march and demonstrate," he said. 

But the impatience for change grew from within.

"All the things our white counterparts enjoyed, we couldn't enjoy any of those things," said former student activist Isaac Washington.

Williams captured the movement frame by frame for publications like Jet and Ebony. The call for boycotting, sit-ins at places like Kress's and Woolworth's, and picketing with signs that read "Down With Segregation" and "Freedom" were very much a part of his everyday life.

"A lot of times what we did was a surprise to the law enforcement officials," said Williams. "We did not just announce in advance that there was going to be a movement or a demonstration."

A defining moment for the movement occurred in March of 1961. It began with a mass meeting at Zion Baptist Church and ended with a march around the State House involving close to 200 students, including Washington.

"They gave us fifteen minutes to disperse," said Washington. "Nobody dispersed. In fact we start singing We Shall Overcome, and they arrested us."

Future congressman Jim Clyburn was among those arrested that day for disturbing the peace. The students were represented at trial by counsel for the SC NAACP, Matthew Perry.

They were convicted and their appeal, entitled Edwards v. South Carolina, ultimately reached the US Supreme Court. The court upheld the rights of the students under the 1st and 14th Amendments of the US Constitution, to march in peaceful protest, which set a major legal precedent.

Washington said they didn't find vindication here at home. Instead, they received it at the highest court of the land.

"Everybody was exonerated," he said.

And just the three days after the march to the State House, activist and Benedict student Lennie Glover was stabbed at a sit-in at Woolworth's here in Columbia.

"We had no weapons," said Williams. "We had no way to defend ourselves other than our bodies."

Change was on its way, though, and the year 1963 was a time of significant progress.  

"The climate was one we need to do this," said Ruth Harvey.

She had just returned home from Howard University to her native Orangeburg that summer to be part of the movement.  

"My mother, for example, put her house up for as bail for the students, who were in jail," said Harvey. "It was a community effort. And bear in mind that if you worked at some of the institutions, and they found out that your children were participating in this, you ran the risk of being fired from your job."

By the end of 1963, lunch counters, some higher education institutions, and parks were open to blacks. A year later, the civil rights act of 1964 legally put an end to major forms of discrimination.

"We are human beings and we need go and do what other human beings do," said Harvey.

There were great sacrifices and losses, but in the end justice prevailed. 50 years later, Williams reflects on the period with vivid moral clarity:

"You knew that segregation was wrong in the hearts of both black and whites," he said. "Anyone could tell that this was something that should not have been allowed to flourish, and for there to be state laws against it. So when you felt so strongly in your heart, it was easy to get involved, and really try to attack and overcome that which suppresses you, I could not have picked a better time in history to be born."

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