Friday, January 29, 2010

General News: Jesse Jackson remembers Greensboro sit-ins

Greensboro News & Record (NC)

January 29, 2010

Edition: Special Section 15

        The civil rights movement wasn't born in Greensboro. And it didn't end here.

        "But the student movement in Greensboro lit the flame," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said. "Once the flame was lit, it caught fire. It unleashed a dynamic."

        Jackson was a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when four N.C. A&T students walked into F.W. Woolworth on Elm Street and sat down at the lunch counter on Feb. 1, 1960. He transferred to A&T that fall and became a part of the community fighting for civil rights.

        "Greensboro set the pace for the movement," he said.

        By the time he was a senior, Jackson was student body president, and he was a leader during the second wave of civil rights protests in Greensboro, fighting for desegregation of theaters and cafeterias.

        During one march in June 1963, Jackson said, he remembers leading a group of hundreds of people up Market Street. The state police were there, and they had their dogs with them. He said that as he looked one of the dogs in the eyes, he felt no fear.

        "It was my own quest for dignity and a quest for history," Jackson recalled. That was the season he truly emerged as a leader, he said.

        "I came out of Greensboro," he said. "It was my launching pad. All that I subsequently became in the movement came out of the lessons I learned in Greensboro."

        Each event and every person involved in the civil rights movement built on one another, Jackson said. Remembering the work as a whole is the importance of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.

        "Feb. 1 is a landmark. The Woolworth's became a defining symbol of our struggle for us and for students around the world," he said. "But Greensboro is also within the context of a larger movement."

        The message traveled from Montgomery to Greensboro to Birmingham to Selma.

        Jackson recalls an incident in October 1959 involving baseball great Jackie Robinson. Robinson was in Greenville, S.C., speaking to the NAACP, and he went to the Greenville airport with the Rev. and Mrs. James Hall for his flight home.

        Mrs. Hall sat down in the whites- only waiting room and was told by a police officer to leave. She refused and was joined by her husband and Robinson, who also refused to leave.

        Robinson's involvement got the public's attention, and on Jan. 1, 1960, local leaders organized a march on the airport.

        That happened before the protest at Woolworth, Jackson said, but "there was something special, almost mystical, about the Greensboro sit-ins. They cleared the fog, and the wind blew, and the whole South was aglow."

        As Jackson looks back 50 years later, he can reflect on the accomplishments for which he marched.

        The winter before the sit-ins, he was unable to have timely access to books at the public library for a report he was writing for college. That summer, he was jailed for trying to use the same public library.

        "When I transferred to A&T, I already had felt the insult of segregation and the liberating power of going to jail for dignity," he said.

        In January 2009, 49 years after the sit-ins, a black president was inaugurated.

        Jackson plans to be here to mark the opening of the museum and to celebrate.

        "We changed the world," Jackson said. "The movement never stopped. We kept removing walls and building bridges. We democratized democracy."

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