Celebrating the 50-year Anniversary of the Winston-Salem Luncheon Counter Sit-In
By Nathan O. Hatch
We celebrate today the courage and commitment of Carl Wesley Matthews and 21 students from Winston-Salem State and Wake Forest, who fifty years ago used non-violent resistance to attack segregation here in Winston-Salem. That single act of bravery had an immediate local effect in this town, in the peaceful desegregation of lunch counters in downtown Winston-Salem. It also became part of something much larger with world historical significance–the swelling tide of protest throughout the South that Dr. King three years later would call hewing “a stone of hope” from “a mountain of despair.” Those efforts led to the dismantling of Jim Crow– a fundamental reordering of American society that took us one step closer to making real the dream that all men and women are created equal.
Today, I would like to make three points about the larger civil rights movement.
1. There was nothing inevitable about it. It is easy to be armchair quarterbacks as we think back over the course of events and interpret them in light of their eventual outcome. But, as one historian has said, “The last thing white liberals were expecting in the 1950’s was a mass movement among African Americans in the South.”
If you had asked political pundits in 1960 whether desegregation would fall over the next decade, I don’t think many would have given it a fair chance. This makes what those who challenged it even more commendable and noteworthy. No one knew that the core system of the old South would crumble. They protested even knowing that they might fail.
2. What happened in Winston-Salem shows the power of individual acts of courage. The civil rights movement was not a carefully orchestrated operation that Dr. Martin Luther King and other leaders launched from headquarters in Atlanta. It was spontaneous and grass roots. It started bubbling up all over, a veritable prophetic religious revival, and Dr. King and others had to think of how best to coordinate and explain what was happening on the ground. There were many actors, many heroes.
It involved leaders like Fred Shuttlesworth, a fiery preacher in Birmingham, who in December of 1956 was blown out of his bed by sixteen sticks of dynamite, landing safely on his mattress. When a police officer advised him to get out of town, he said, “I wasn’t saved to run.” He vowed, “I will kill segregation or be killed by it.”
Or Fannie Lou Hamer, the extraordinary lay preacher in Mississippi who led the fight there to vote; and was beaten, jailed, and harassed. And it involved a local civil rights leader, Carl Wesley Matthews, who today we honor. 3. Like many movements of social protest and renewal, the fights against segregation had two powerful sources of ideas and people. One was in colleges and universities. Students in the 1960’s took up the cause of civil rights, many of them as Freedom Riders. These efforts were given moral voice by a number of leaders in higher education such as Father Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame. Of the many pictures and mementos in Father Hesburgh’s office today, he takes pleasure in none more than the picture of him walking arm-in-arm in Mississippi with Martin Luther King.
The civil rights movement was also local and democratic, its force and momentum driven by common people who longed for change and took up the cause with religious zeal. Educated elites alone did not bring about the civil rights movement: it was a fueled by average African Americans and scores of local churches who began to speak out against the wrongs of segregation.
David Chappell has argued convincingly in his book A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, that it was religious fervor, calling, and solidarity that moved people out of complacency and gave them hope to overcome. It was a popular movement of deep religious conviction. When Freedom Riders came to Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hammer would have to explain to students about the deeply religious identity and motivation of her colleagues and friends.
Today, as we celebrate a single act of courage carried out fifty years ago here in Winston-Salem, let me close with a few lines from the poet Seamus Heaney that captures the “tidal wave” of change of which this sit-in was a part:
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
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