By Bill Minor
When a small racially-mixed group from Tougaloo College sat down at the whites-only lunch counter of Jackson’s Woolworth store on May 28, 1963, and were met by ugly white violence it became a historic turning point in Mississippi’s race relations, with ramifications nationally.
Today, the Woolworth “five and dime” store is long gone. But last week its moment of fame in civil rights history 50 years ago was honored in a newly published book, dedication of a bronze roadside marker, a TV documentary and ceremonies at Tougaloo.
I feel honored that I was there to record the momentous event as it unfolded, proud to at lease have had a part in what would become America’s 20th century social revolution, commonly called the civil rights movement.
None of us that day knew (although some of us may have feared) that 14 days later Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s state field secretary, whose generalship set in motion Mississippi blacks’ first broad-based challenge of state-sponsored racial codes, would die from an assassin’s rifle bullet.
Though planned as a Ghandi-style peaceful protest, the Woolworth sit-in became a brutal melee when hostile whites – many of them male students from nearby Central High School – poured into the store and began dousing the sit-in group with ketchup, mustard, and other condiments, and began physically assaulting both male and female sitters.
Then a Tougaloo student, 18-year-old Memphis Norman, was knocked from a stool by a white man (later identified as an ex-policeman) who began kicking the young black man in the face and head as he lay crumpled on the floor. A plain clothes detective posted inside the store finally stopped the attack, but there was no arrest. Uniformed police were just outside the store’s front door, but they did nothing even while knowing what was happening inside. They claimed they were ordered not to interfere unless the store manager requested.
Meantime, other sitters, including Joan Trumpauer, who a year earlier had dropped out of Duke University to enroll as Tougaloo’s first white student, were being harassed. Trump-auer, now 71, is portrayed in a new book, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” by freelance writer Mike O’Brien, of Fairfax, Va., who spent more than 16 years researching and interviewing people who were there May 28, 1963. He retells in superb detail the story of those who were present during the sit-in. And, importunately, he captures its meaning in the broad panorama of the 1960s civil rights struggle.
Evers, who had befriended me and a few other Mississippi journalists, had gotten word to me as the Woolworth action was beginning. Anxious to make the black community in the Mississippi capital city an active partner in challenging public facility racial barriers that was happening elsewhere in the South, Evers had masterminded a strategy for the Jackson nonviolent movement beginning with boycotts and picketing downtown businesses. The Woolworth lunch counter sit-in was an add-on to test a recent Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated public dining facilities.
Besides the O’Brien book (published by University Press of Mississippi) Joan Trumpauer is featured in a documentary film, “An Ordinary Hero,” produced by one of her sons, Loki Mulholland, which has won acclaim at several film festivals.
Perhaps the biggest incongruity of the Woolworth lunch counter sit-in and its lasting significance as a defining moment in the civil rights struggle is that the iconic photograph of the sitters being doused with condiments was made by a photographer for one of Mississippi’s most segregationist newspapers. The photo which went nationwide, and even internationally, was shot by Fred Blackwell of the now-defunct Jackson Daily News. Blackwell, still a Jackson resident insists he was merely “doing my job” and not trying to make a point. Six of his photos from the sit-in are displayed in O’Reilly’s book. One shows me from the rear, leaning in to interview Memphis Norman at the counter.
The photo of Norman being kicked on the floor happened to have been made by Blackwell’s then colleague, Jack Thornell, who several years later as photographer for The Associated Press won a Pulitzer Prize for capturing a wounded James Meredith on his 1966 “Walk for Freedom.”
By the way, one Blackwell photo of three students at the lunch counter before being harassed shows a Woolworth sign “roast turkey dinner 70 cents.” Times change?
Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.