Selected Excerpts from Book
by Julian Bond
Michael O’Brien has written a detailed history and fascinating study of one of the iconic moments of the modern civil rights movement and the powerful effect it had. The 1963 sit-in at a Jackson, Mississippi, Woolworth’s lunch counter was captured by a local photographer, as were many other demonstrations, but this one captured the imagination as no other did. The photograph, taken three years after the modern civil rights movement was stirred into action by a similar sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, and decades after similar protests in the 1950s, 1940s, and earlier, had greater significance and carried greater weight than those that went before.
In many ways, the important elements in this and the earlier protests were the same.
The petty apartheid of lunch counter segregation grated at blacks’ sensibilities. They knew whites did not mind closeness or intimacy when the blacks were maids or nurses, or subservient and servile. They did not mind blacks preparing food for white children and even nursing them. But something about eating side by side struck a strong nerve in many white southerners. One of the white high school students drawn to this scene said he had never seen whites and blacks sitting together in a public place—he thought it was wrong in 1963 and told the author he thinks it is wrong today.
The mechanics of most southern lunch counter sit-ins had become routine by 1963.
Peaceful black and white protesters would calmly take seats at an eating facility reserved for whites only. Where laws forbade blacks to sit at eating facilities reserved for whites, as was true in most of the South until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, the blacks were asked to leave. If they refused, police were called. Practicing what they understood to be Gandhian nonviolence, the protesters refused to strike back if struck.
In most places, that was it, but in Jackson, where racial protests of any kind had been
infrequent and little noticed, an explosion occurred. This protest took place in the immediate aftermath of a Supreme Court decision legalizing sit-ins. Rather than acknowledging an obligation to protect the sit-inners, the Jackson police interpreted the decision as granting them the right to ignore the protesters if any but the most dangerous violence occurred. The result was that Jackson’s finest stood outside the Woolworth’s while as many as three hundred angry whites were allowed to attack the sit-inners at will, without any interference by the law.
The photo only hints at the level of violence that occurred. By looking at the faces of the three at the counter—John Salter, Joan Trumpauer, and Anne Moody—and their disheveled and soiled clothing, one can imagine the degree of anger their assailants expressed. But the photo does not show the beatings the sit-inners received, the blows that rained upon them, or the cuts they received.
The Woolworth’s sit-in became the alarm that awakened black Jackson. A movement
erupted where, despite decades of racist degradation, organizers with their best efforts had been unable to arouse a seemingly placid black population. With the sit-in as a catalyst for an activist movement in Jackson, the drama that followed for the next month occupies the rest of this absorbing story. Organizational jealousy threatened movement unity and harmony. Personal conflicts menaced movement cohesiveness.
This story doesn’t have the happiest of endings. A promising movement was stymied by
tragedy and backbiting and failed to deliver victories earlier enthusiasm had promised. The
people we now know as heroes and heroines were people, after all, and often they acted like
other human beings, revealing the same shortcomings.
But most of all, as the author shows them here, they were brave. Avoiding the
triumphalism of most civil rights history, O’Brien shows the human weaknesses common to us all, analyzing the emotions and maneuvering that characterized some of civil rights history. Readers will enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at an important event in movement history, and will see people as they are—at their best and worst.
(Julian Bond is chairman emeritus of the NAACP Board of Directors. He is a Distinguished Scholar in the School of Government at American University in Washington, D.C., and a professor in the Department of History at the University of Virginia.)
About the Author
It was while visiting the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia in 1991 that M. J. O’Brien conceived the work that has become We Shall Not Be Moved. As part of its civil rights display, the King Center showed a photograph of the 1963 Jackson, Mississippi Woolworth’s sit-in—a photograph that has become the image used in history books and magazine articles to show what a sit-in was like. O’Brien was captivated by the photograph because at its center was a woman, Joan (Trumpauer)Mulholland, whom he had known for a number of years.
We Shall Not Be Moved is a labor of love. Primarily created in the late 1990s and finally brought to life through the auspices of the University Press of Mississippi, it is a story of triumph and determination that was captured by the now-iconic Fred Blackwell photograph. Although its publication was delayed (as told in Acknowledgements), timing is everything. The book was supposed to be published in 1999, but for a variety of reasons, it is only reaching a broader public today. And that is as it should be. We are on the cusp of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In (May 28, 1963) and the courageous souls who decided, one-by-one , to sit in at the counter that day are being recognized for their contribution to the overall civil rights struggle.