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"Sitting In" In The Sixties
By Paul M. Gaston
I'm going to begin with the memory of a day, much nicer than this one, in May of 1963. There was a picnic at a law professor's home. It was the end of the season for the Virginia Council on Human Relations and some of the people in the local branch of the NAACP. We were a group--the two groups meeting together--who had spent the year, as we had spent many previous years, talking to local restaurant owners, motel operators, theater owners, employers, asking them if they wouldn't open up Charlottesville a little bit. We'd spent a lot of time negotiating with them, patiently talking, appealing to reason.
And at the end of each year, we got together to pat ourselves on the back, to enjoy some fun and fellowship, and to discuss what we had done in the year past and what we were going to do in the year ahead.
This picnic had a sort of unusual turn to it. Late in the afternoon, a young black minister--newly arrived in town I think, I can't remember how long he'd been here--named Floyd Johnson--got up on a table, and called us all over, and said "We're going to have some sit- ins."
There was a long silence. He said, "You know, you're all aware of what's been going on in Birmingham. You're all aware of how we've negotiated patiently here for such a long time, and yet this is still a closed city. And we've got to do something about it. So all of you who would like to join the sit-in movement, come down to my church"--and he mentioned the night, and I can't remember what night it was.
Well, some shock waves went through the audience, through us picnickers. Some of us were a little bit apprehensive. Some were confident that this was the sort of thing one did to bring about social change. Some of us knew that there wouldn't be a great deal of support. Many of us remembered that just a few years earlier we had arranged to have a boycott of the University Theater.
There were a few black students here at the time; the University was sort of like a prison--or a fortress, whichever way you'd like to look at it--and the few black students could walk around here safely, but you'd go down to the Corner and everything was closed. And we'd started to have a boycott at the University Theater. And we wanted to put a list of names in the paper of all the people who were going to boycott the theater. Well, we had a difficult time getting a lot of names. We also had a difficult time getting the Cavalier Daily to print the ad, which will give you some sense of what feelings were like in those days. The Cavalier Daily simply didn't want to print an ad, even though we were going to pay for it.
There were humorous aspects of it. We wanted the list to be headed by some of the most distinguished members of the faculty. There weren't many in that category we could persuade to sign, but we knew we could count on probably the most distinguished, Professor Dumas Malone, the Jefferson scholar. I called him and asked him if he would have his name at the head of the list. And he said he would, but he felt a little bit hypocritical about that. And I said, "Why, Dumas?" And he said, "Well, you know, Elizabeth and I never go to the movies." But I persuaded him, so his name went on the list and, several years later, he called me up and he said, "Paul, Elizabeth and I want to go to the movies. Are we still boycotting that theater?"
Well, uneasy glances were exchanged as Floyd asked us to join in a sit-in. Now what was the context? What were these sit-ins? I know some of you know. Several of you here have doubtless experienced them. Some of you here lived through the Sixties. Most of you here didn't. I'm speaking largely to you, the undergraduates, and not to those of you who took their part in leading the movement for change in the 1960s. I'm speaking to you students who were, in fact, born after this picnic took place.
The modern movement of sit-ins had begun on February 1, 1960, in Greensboro, North Carolina, when Ezell Blair, David Richmond, Joseph McNeill, and Franklin McCain, four black freshman at the North Carolina Agricultural & Technical School at Greensboro, had been fed up with what was happening to them, and with the pace of change in the South. It had been six years since the Brown decision had called for an end to segregation in schools, and by implication for an end to segregation elsewhere, and it seemed that massive resistance in the South was holding that movement for change back.
So these four youngsters decided they would do something. They sat up in a dorm room and came up with a plan. They went to the Woolworth's store the next day. First they made some purchases, making the point that the store was open to the public; then they sat down at the lunch counter and ordered a cup of coffee, whereupon they were told, as students would be told so many times in the future, "We don't serve Negroes here." There would be times in the future when the students would joke about this, and reply, "That's all right, we don't eat Negroes," and ask for something else.
There were these four students that day, who sat until the place closed. The next day they were joined by four black women from Bennett College, and by twenty-three of their fellow male students at A & T. There were sixty-three of them on the third day, including the first whites, three women from the women's college at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. On the fourth day, there were three hundred, and Saturday night they had a mass rally of some sixteen hundred people.
This Greensboro coffee party sparked a movement that spread like brush fire across the South. In many Southern cities, but not in Charlottesville, young students began presenting themselves at lunch counters, making an order, and not leaving when they were asked to. They were subject to abuse; they were subject to violence; they were subject to torment. But they stayed, and the movement spread all over the region. They were young people; they were urban; they were middle class, in aspiration if not in status. And by April they had created for themselves an organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which is called familiarly SNCC ("Snick"), which became the sort of shock troop movement of the young students. By September of 1961, according to a Southern Regional Council estimate, 70,000 blacks and whites had actively participated in sit-ins.
A new method of changing the social structure had been discovered, and it was a method that was not limited to the lunch counters. Pretty soon one found that it was a method which was suitable for all kinds of public places where blacks were either segregated or excluded, so that there were kneel-ins at the churches, sleep-ins at the motel lobbies, swim-ins at the segregated pools, wade-ins at the segregated beaches, read-ins at the segregated libraries, play-ins at the segregated parks, and watch-ins at the segregated movies. And everywhere there were jail-ins. The movement was based on the idea of nonviolent civil disobedience. Students would offer themselves nonviolently in a particular situation. They would not resist when tormented, nor would they resist when arrested.
This captured the attention of the nation. One of the great Southern university presidents and United States senators, who was hounded out of office because of his greatness, Frank Porter Graham of the University of North Carolina, said of these students that they were "renewing springs of American democracy; in sitting down, they are standing up for the American dream."
Sympathy marches took place all across the nation. There was a nice response from the people up North. I particularly recall one occasion. I was looking at the New York Times one morning in March of 1960 and there was a picture of a very beautiful woman. I looked at that picture hard and I said, "I know that woman"; and, sure enough, it was Bebe Betbeze from Mobile. We had danced and sailed on summer evenings when we were teenagers and I had a great affection for her. She had since gone on to great things; she'd become Miss America, and later became a theater patron in New York. And this picture showed her picketing a Woolworth's store in New York, protesting Woolworth's failure to integrate in the South. And the caption underneath her photograph quoted her as saying "I'm a Southern girl, but I'm a thinking girl."
Well, I pondered that contrast. The implication seemed to be that thinking would make one less Southern, or less racist (which really isn't the same thing, is it?), and I suppose that's what Bebe was saying. One of the functions of the sit-ins which had started in Greensboro and spread about the South was to rip off those blinders that protected people from reality, so that they could see. Once they could see, they could think more clearly. One of the things the sit-ins embarrassed was the popular idea, which so many Southerners held, that the Negro Revolution, as it was called then, was a product of the nefarious leadership of the Kremlin, the Kennedys, and the United States Supreme Court. Once one saw that these young people, on their own, were doing these things, it was harder to defend that point of view.
Some changes did take place. The economic squeeze brought about by boycotts and sit-ins was important. The raising of consciousness was important. And, of course, seeing innocent black people being beaten had a tremendous impact. Many lunch counters and some other public facilities, and some minds, did begin to open up during the early 1960s as a consequence of these sit-in movements.
But the South, in May of 1963 when we had our picnic, was still a closed society. The results of the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, and other forms of nonviolent civil disobedience were not such as to match the sacrifice that had been made. Public accommodations remained segregated in all Southern states, and in most places still in 1963. School desegregation in the ninth year after the Brown decision had hardly begun. Fewer than one-half of one percent of the black children in the South went to desegregated schools, and there still was no desegregation at all in my home state of Alabama, or in our neighboring state of Mississippi, or in my wife's home state of South Carolina. The right to vote was still denied to 75% of the adult blacks in the South, and those 25% who by now were voting didn't really have a whole lot to vote for.
In Charlottesville, token integration had begun in the schools, once they had opened up after they had been closed during the period of Massive Resistance legislation. The county schools were still segregated and most public facilities were still closed to blacks. Integration was proceeding in a token fashion at a snail's-like pace. All the power of the community was arrayed against it.
So this was the situation in May, 1963. The Greensboro coffee party had not inspired a lot of activity around here, but as Floyd Johnson indicated when he spoke to us at that picnic, the Birmingham demonstrations ought to. If they didn't, nothing else would.
The Birmingham demonstrations were just about over when we had our picnic. They started in April, and they went on until May 10, when Martin King had announced a great victory in Birmingham. The white leadership of that city had agreed to begin to dismantle Jim Crow, and to appoint a biracial commission. Before that had happened, there had been some of the most extraordinary violence Americans had ever seen on television.
King knew in December 1962 that some major confrontation had to take place, or else the federal government was never going to get active, that there would never be a civil rights law. And there had to be a massive civil rights law, or else Jim Crow just wouldn't be knocked down. And he knew that Birmingham was a likely place for such a confrontation to occur. The city was widely known as the Johannesburg of America, a microcosm of all that was evil in the South. Before the Birmingham demonstrations were over in May of that year, Senator Wayne Morse would declare that Birmingham would disgrace the Union of South Africa. That's probably an extravagant statement, but Birmingham certainly wouldn't have been a great credit to that nation.
It was precisely these characteristics which led King into Birmingham. I don't have time to talk about the movement there; I just want to suggest to you what we were thinking about when our small Birmingham-- when "Little Birmingham"--took place here. In the Birmingham demonstrations, thousands of people were arrested. On TV in the evenings one saw the fire hoses, the police dogs. In time, the people who were demonstrating were children, and it was quite a sight to see small children knocked down with fire hoses, attacked by men with billy clubs, and hauled off to jail.
Like Greensboro, Birmingham had shock waves. "Little Birminghams" occurred all over the South, in response both to the indignation and to the sense that something was possible. Because if, in Birmingham, you could get an agreement that Jim Crow would be dismantled, surely you get such an agreement elsewhere. In the summer, after our picnic, and after our sit-in here, John Kennedy would introduce a comprehensive Civil Rights bill outlawing segregation in public facilities; but that was still in the future for us.
At the time of his arrest, when he wrote his famous "Letter >From a Birmingham Jail," Martin King was no stranger to Charlottesville, nor was he a stranger to the people who were at the picnic--especially those who were likely to heed Pastor Johnson's call to a sit-in. He had been here just two months earlier, in March. He made a speech at Cabell Hall which rocked the place. It was filled; there were a thousand folks there. Hundreds of them came up to touch him afterwards. The dynamism that the man suggested was impossible to believe unless you really saw it.
There were humorous parts of it. We came over here to Newcomb Hall after the speech. I might say that he was largely ignored by University officialdom. Martin King, age thirty-four, the most important black leader in America at that time, was not someone who was really safe to celebrate, so University officialdom--and I mean by that students as well as faculty and administration leaders--stayed away. But we did come back over here after the speech, and had a reception. It was appropriate that the cupcakes were black and white, and we started munching on black and white cupcakes and started singing freedom songs. There was a woman with food services, who was pouring punch, and she watched these whites and blacks, singing these strange songs, and eating these black and white cupcakes, and she just kept pouring the punch--and it went all over the floor.
Later that evening, we wandered about the Grounds, and a car backfired, just on the other side of Newcomb Hall. Well, I thought it was a car backfiring, and it will indicate to you how white folks think differently from black people. The black man who was with us immediately pinned King to the wall; he instantly thought it was a shot. And I thought, "Hey, I could have done that," but I didn't think about it being a gunshot. Your experience teaches you to behave; your mind can't always catch up to other peoples' experiences. We talked later on about that, in King's motel room, where King said, "Yeah, it's gonna happen to me sometime," which of course it did.
Well, people have the memory of the speech, the person, and of the things that he had said in his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," in which he had talked about the importance of sit-ins, and about what they were to do: "We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension," he said. "We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with." These were words we would have cause to remember when the community's wrath came down on us for promoting violence and tension.
King also had some harsh things to say about the moderates. He said that the good Southern white men--and women, too, I guess he might have said , who profess to be opposed to racism--he said of them that the Southern moderate sometimes seems to be the Negro's stumbling block in his stride toward freedom. Why, you might ask Because the white moderate preferred order to justice, and arrogated to himself the right to set the timetable for another person's freedom. "Shallow understanding," he wrote, "from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will." We would have cause to ponder these words, too, in the next few weeks.
All of this was resonating on the day of our picnic. Some of us--not many, some--after having exchanged nervous glances, showed up at the church a few nights later to receive our marching instructions. History, it seemed, was now catching up with Charlottesville. Charlottesville was going to have its sit-in. It was going to be part of the great drama that was unfolding in the South.
Some of us were terribly naive. Floyd read from a book about what you do in a sit-in, explaining how women protect themselves when they're going to be kicked, how men protect themselves, how you must be certain to be nonviolent, what sort of movements you use to avoid appearing to be violent. Some of us laughed, and said, "Well, you know, this is not Birmingham, there's not going to be any violence in Charlottesville; what a silly idea."
Well, innocence was not to last long for some of us. We divided into two teams that evening. One group, team one, went to a restaurant on Emmett Street, just across from U-Hall, it's where La Hacienda is now; I don't know what it was called then. That group sat down in an orderly fashion, and I might comment that this group, these people, we were mostly adults--I'll talk a bit later about the student involvement--we were mostly adults, black and white. There was no black college here, so it was not like so many other places where there had been black student leaders who had run sit-ins. We were mostly adults; we thought of ourselves as young adults, and I guess we were back then.
And so the first team went to this restaurant, and sat down. There was great tension. They wondered what to do when confronted and asked to leave. As they steeled themselves, the waitress came up and said, "What'll you have?" Well, some of them were a little embarrassed. They hadn't expected such an easy victory, and had no money.
I was in team two. We went, a large group, to a restaurant, to a place that's now where the Triple-A is, just across from the Cavalier Inn. There was nothing where the Cavalier Inn is now. Just across from that space there was a brick structure, which was called "Buddy's Restaurant, Just a Nice Place to Eat."
We went there, sat down, and filled up the place, men and women, black and white, at the various tables. Tension mounted at that restaurant all through the evening. We were not welcome. Nobody said, "What will you have?" Instead, they apparently went by the motto that was on the place mats that said, "Don't let our waitresses rush you."
There were Christian epigraphs all over the place. Apparently, their application was to be held in abeyance during that evening. I do remember a long conversation we had with a local rabbi at the time, who started trying to negotiate for us, unsuccessfully, I must say. So the place closed and we went home; Charlottesville had had its sit-in.
The next day, a pattern was established that would in time change profoundly Charlottesville, just as it had changed many other places. A group of people went back to the restaurant the next day. This time there was a gentleman standing in the doorway. It was his job to be the host of all the guests who might come to the restaurant, and also to express the proprietor's sincere regrets to those who would not be welcome to come in the restaurant. He was a man of substantial proportions, and one had the feeling that one was not going to have a sit-in inside that restaurant that day.
So we formed a line. You can imagine the building, and then alongside, parallel to the building, there was a sidewalk, and we stood on the sidewalk as though we were walking into the restaurant. We were not blocking anybody's entrance, nor causing any difficulties, but we were simply waiting to enter the restaurant. Floyd Johnson was at the head of the line; there was always a black in charge. Floyd was in charge of the sit-ins generally, and he had lieutenants who would be there when he could not be there.
As the sit-in was intended to do, it focused public attention on the question of public facilities. And Charlottesville, I guess, was ready to be turned around at that time, because telephone calls began to come in--from theaters, from restaurants, from motels. The message was the same from all of them: "We don't want sit-ins. We're desegregated; don't come to us." And, in just a few moments, in a very short time-- using that phrase people used to taunt us with, "You can't change things overnight"--overnight things changed as a consequence of the threat of the sit-ins.
But not at Buddy's Restaurant. Down there, at this particular restaurant, all of the pent-up fears, anxieties, and hatreds of the community began to be focused. Hecklers gathered on the line. Some of them were U.Va. students. Some of them were wearing Nazi arm bands, and distributing literature from a group called the Thunderbolt, or something of that sort.
There were phone calls, at night, to those who were participating. I'd always liked this big glass we had in front of our living room, so that everybody could see in, and we could see out. But I began to worry about it one night when I answered the phone and some husky voice said, "Are you integratin' the niggers tonight, Mr. Gaston?" And, we began to put our telephone under a pillow when we went to bed after that.
Now, mind you, we were just foot soldiers in this. We just happened to be there. There were several others--a few faculty, faculty wives, a few students, a handful of them, not very many. It was exam time; students at the University of Virginia were not really committed to this sort of thing. I could tell you a number of stories about their lack of commitment. One I will use.
We sat in this room [South Meeting Room, Newcomb Hall], just two or three years before the sit-ins, with the student council up here, on these chairs. Some students had formed, with a few of us as faculty advisers, a student chapter of the Virginia Council on Human Relations. It was to be an interracial group to work here at the University. And then, as now, one had to have approval of the Student Council in order to be a bona fide group. We couldn't get their approval. They didn't want any groups like that existing at the University of Virginia. It took a colleague of mine, Tom Hammond, who taught Russian history then, to stand up and say, "You know, I've been teaching the history of the Soviet Union, and it certainly strikes me that there are some interesting parallels between the way they like to suppress freedom of speech, and the way you all here on the student council do--and I know that you would not want those parallels drawn too finely."
Well, after a long, agonizing time, the student's chapter of the VCHR was allowed to exist. But this was still not a place where large numbers of students participated. There were always a few who participated, even in the darkest days of Virginia gentlemanliness. There were extraordinary people here who were ready to take part in some movement for social change. This has always been a vibrant place; it's just that sometimes it's not easy to discover. Sometimes it was easier than others.
So there weren't many students. Well, the sit-in focused the community's attention, as I have said. This pattern was established, of a line of people standing as though they were walking toward the restaurant. And, there would be hecklers, observers, and the newspaper reporting on what was happening.
On Memorial Day, I went down to the line to see if Pastor Johnson needed anything. I said, "Do you need anything, Floyd?" He said, "I'm hungry." And I said, "Why don't you go into this restaurant here--I here they have good food in there." He said, "That's what I've been standing here three days for, and they won't let me in. Go get somebody to take my place so I can go get a meal."
So I went back home, and I got on the telephone, and I called some of the black leaders, and they were either out or busy. So I went back to report this news to him, and those of you who are historians are now going to hear about the accidents of history--about how things happen, just purely by accident.
I went back and I said, "Floyd, I'm sorry, I can't get anybody." And he said, "Well, I'm hungry; you be the leader." And I said, "Why, no, I haven't even got a sun tan; I can't be the leader." And he said, "No, you be the leader; it's time some of your kind took over for a while." So I said, "Well, all right."
So I stood at the front of the line while he went off to get something to eat. He hadn't been gone five minutes before a group of Memorial Day celebrants arrived in their car. They walked up to the line. They were aware of our presence, and indicated to us their displeasure with the undertaking we were involved in. They indicated it verbally, and they began to indicate it physically, at which time I started to tremble, thinking, "What's a leader supposed to do in such situations?" Fortunately, their thirst overcame them, and they went on into the tavern, and I breathed a sigh of relief. They came back out in a few moments--ten, fifteen minutes maybe--and once again indicated their displeasure with our presence, this time pushing and shoving. This time I knew that whoever was the leader ought to do something, and then I recall Floyd's command, "You're the leader."
What to do? Well, usually when you're in trouble, you call the constabulary. So, right across the street there was one of these outside phone booths, with glass all around it. So I walked across the street into the phone booth, to call the police. Well, I'd never called the police before, and I really hadn't used a pay phone. I reached in my pocket to see if I had any money, and then I got the phone book out to see what the number of the police was. I had just put my hand on the phone book when a rather large man, who was one of our adversaries, put his hands gently on my shoulders and lifted me up like that, and turned me around, and he said, "You ain't gonna call no damn police." And I looked at him. (I learned later that he'd been an ex-professional prize fighter). He was well over three hundred pounds, and he was considerably taller than I was, and I was 6'1", and I thought, "You know, you're absolutely right."
I remembered all of my instructions in nonviolence, and I certainly was not going to be violent, not with this gentleman or indeed with his confederate. It was a very interesting experience. I learned a lot very quickly. His confederate was much smaller, one hundred thirty- five pounds, maybe one-forty, and wiry. And, I discovered later when we were sequestered in the witness room for the trial, he was a person who engaged in fisticuffs fairly regularly on Saturday nights.
And so he hit me once hard across the face, and then again pretty hard; and then the third time not so hard, and a fourth time he just sort of grazed me. You know, it was as though someone who'd been out with Newton one day threw an apple up, and it just kept going. Because he had never had this experience before, of just hitting--because when you hit somebody, he hit you back. And so the laws of his universe seemed to have been violated. He had troubled eyes.
They took me back to the line. There was a moment when I thought they might have pushed me in front of the traffic, at which point I would have abandoned my passive strategy in order to get out of the way of the car.
We got back to the line. I heaved a sigh of relief; it was all over, they had left. Lord, I didn't want to have any more to do with it. Students who were there said, "Now you've got to swear out a warrant for their arrest." And I said, "Do I? Can't we just forget about it?" "No," they said, "you can't do that, we've already called the police."
Well, the police--who some suggest had not been totally unaware of what was happening--did show up, and I described the two individuals, and they said, "That would be so-and-so and that would be so-and-so." And I said, "Well, I guess I have to swear out a warrant for their arrest," which I did. They took me down to the police station, and I swore out a warrant for assault and battery for the arrest of those two people. And I asked, "These are not the sort of fellows who'd come out to my house and hassle me or my family, are they?" The detective said, "Oh, no, I don't think so. Of course, they might come back down to that line and bother people there," which is precisely what they were doing at that very moment.
They had returned. By this time Floyd Johnson was back in the line, and William Johnson, another black leader, was also there. This time the two men weren't so gentle. This time they beat hard. Floyd had to spend two nights in the hospital, and William was beaten up pretty badly too. I was not there; I did not know about this until later.
That was the end of the action. Now began the long wait between the sit-in and the trial and the aftermath. We filed charges of assault and battery, all three of us, and a short time later we found that our assailants had charged us with the same thing. Someone had told them that the best defense is an offense, so they charged us with assault and battery. Predictably, shortly after that, they said, "Now look here, if you'll withdraw your charges, we'll withdraw our charges." Well, we thought about that for a while, and the difference was that they were guilty and we weren't, so we declined their offer.
We had different lawyers. I'd like to mention this, because I'm going to give you a couple of examples of what fear does, how it turns naturally timid people into cowards. We had two different lawyers. The University officialdom, in the person of a presidential assistant, came to see me. It was not in the interest of the University to have one of its own arrested, convicted, and sent to jail. And I wasn't anxious to be in jail either; I wasn't one of the ones who wanted to be in a jail-in. I wish now I had, but I didn't. I posted bond, and so I didn't go to jail. The University wanted to provide a lawyer for me, so a University professor wouldn't be convicted. So I went along with that, and I didn't go along with Floyd and William when they hired Attorney Sam Tucker from Richmond, one of the most distinguished lawyers in the state, who was a pioneer NAACP lawyer in this area.
And, you know, looking back on it, I think, well why didn't I do that? Well, I didn't do it because I was scared. The University administration said, "This is the way we'll keep you out of jail." So, that is the first confession of how people sometimes under pressure don't do things that they later wish they had done.
Anyway, we all conferred--Tucker and Johnson and Johnson. My lawyers didn't like to talk to them; they were conservative, local establishment people, and we thought this was good with the judge. The judge was sort of a hanging judge, and we were going to have some difficulties there.
A lot of things happened between the time we got the attorneys and the trial.
Student reaction was interesting. I met one student in the library, and I had a big bandage on. He'd read the newspaper, and he came up and he said, "Hey, Mr. Gaston, what'd you do? Been down there at Buddy's?" And I said, "That's right, Don." His jaw dropped; he couldn't believe that someone he knew and liked, one of his teachers, had actually been beaten up. Now, he was from Birmingham. He knew about people being beaten up. But actually to see somebody was the first step in his transformation to become a man of extraordinary social conscience--later, a distinguished member of the State Department, and now of the Washington, D.C. Bar. His change dates from that conversation. You know he saw something that he'd read about before, but couldn't believe.
At about the same time I came into my classroom to hand out the final examination--this for a class of twenty or so, studying Southern History--and I was met by applause. I hadn't thought my students would be moved that way. I held back tears until the exam questions were distributed and I was safely in the hallway.
Other students weren't quite so appreciative. There was one, for example, who came out in the middle of the night and caused the air to leave all four of the tires in my automobile. I came out the next morning, and there were slashes in all four tires. Sleuthing on the part of a neighbor of mine, who had seen the fellow up there in the middle of the night, led to the identification of the person who'd slashed the tires. He was in due course hauled into the office of one of the deans. The dean said to him, "Mr. So-and-so, did you go out there and slash Mr.Gaston's tires?" "No, sir, I didn't do any such thing." "You didn't?" "No, sir, I didn't."
Then they brought in my neighbor, who had seen him. And the neighbor said, "Yeah, that's the boy." And the fellow said, "well, what will happen to me if I say I did?" And the dean said, "Well, we'll see." Two things happened to him. The Judiciary Committee awarded him an Enforced Withdrawal for two years for having slashed the tires of a professor. However, he'd done something else. He'd lied to the dean about it. So the Honor Committee tried him and they kicked him out forever. Now, I've reflected on that, and--what do you think about that? To have a person thrown out forever? That's an honor violation for lying about doing it; for slashing the tires you only get two years.
The Buildings and Grounds crew, especially the janitors in my building, were a deep source of strength. They came by my office, sometimes furtively, to say thank you and to offer a handshake or some other gesture of support. Once again the great Southern lie of the contented black folk was exposed for the self-serving sham it had always been.
I never learned what the personal feelings of the University President were. He neither praised nor reprimanded me. He just kept his distance, declaring, I suppose, a kind of official neutrality. There was one incident that must have been difficult for him. In those days we had a thriving honors program. External examiners came every spring to examine the honors candidates. They arrived this year just after I was beaten up and bandaged. I was the chairman of the Honors Committee that year and one of my duties was to accompany the President to a luncheon for the visitors. I asked the President's secretary if the President would like this year to come to the luncheon on his own or have me escort him. The answer came back that he would meet me there. At the luncheon my bandage aroused everyone's curiosity and the hot topic of conversation was the sit in, a topic the President wanted to avoid.
The trial came. It was a curious trial. It was a misdemeanor trial. Ordinarily when you're accused of a misdemeanor, you come down before the judge without a lawyer, and the judge says, "What did you do?" and you tell him, and he decides what he's going to do to you. If you go down to the police court now on any trial day, you can see such things going on. Occasionally people get lawyers. In this case, of course, community attention was focused on us so we all had lawyers, and we had to move from the police court into the big Albemarle County courthouse so everybody could come to watch. It was a big event.
The Commonwealth's attorney, the prosecuting attorney, had decided that he would prosecute everybody, all five of us. It was a rather strange arrangement, and when our presence was not required, either as a prosecuting witness or as a defendant, we had to be sequestered, and that's where I got acquainted with my colleagues in this. We'd visit while we were being sequestered.
The judge, we were aware, was not greatly in sympathy with us. On one occasion, the lawyer was describing what had happened, and said, "Do I need to go on, or is Your Honor familiar with the layout at Buddy's Restaurant?" "Oh yeah," His Honor replied, "I had dinner down there last night." One thought there might be some grounds for mistrial.
I got to hear some testimony against me, and there was one cutting insult that I had to bear, and have borne all these years. One of the persons, who had charged me with cursing and abusing and raising my arms in a menacing fashion, was asked under oath, "So, Mr. So-and- so, you say that Mr. Gaston cursed you, abused you." "Yes, sir!" "What did he say?" I waited anxiously to hear.
"He said, 'Get away from me, you drunken fool!'"
And I thought, well there's another myth. That's the way university professors curse and abuse. Well, my gracious, if I had intended to curse and abuse, I could have done a lot better job than that!
There were too many credible witnesses for Johnson and Johnson and Gaston to be convicted. There were just too many people who were watching the trial, and even in the worst hanging court there'd have been no way we that we could have been found guilty. Likewise, it would have been very difficult to find the others innocent. So, we were acquitted, and they were found guilty and fined by the judge ten dollars and given thirty-day suspended sentences. On the way out, one person was heard to remark, "Well that's what it costs to hit a nigger, ten dollars."
The judge didn't let us go without a stern lecture; and, with his help, the press fomented the myth that it was we who had gone down and provoked the violence. Of course, we had not provoked it, except by our presence. The simple presence of people like ourselves had provoked the violence everywhere. It had provoked the violence in Birmingham, which had led to the sit-ins in Charlottesville, which would lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And that violence had brought to the surface the tension that raised community consciousness and contributed to a better understanding of reality.
I went to commencement a few days after the trial. We had a new dean then. He had just come from Vanderbilt. I had met him earlier that winter--in December, actually, at a conference Martin King attended--and as I marched he saw me and said, "Well, Paul, I'm glad to see that my faculty is out of jail." So there was a sort of happy resolution in that sense.
I'm going to talk very briefly about some of the consequences, some of the aftermath of the sit-in here. The community began to open up as a result of the sit-in. As I've said, many private establishments said they were now desegregated, and in fact they were. A biracial committee was appointed. Jim Crow barriers began to fall. The city had a long way to go. It would in time become a distinguished city in its leadership in race relations. It still had a way to go in 1963, but it would never be quite the same again.
Buddy's restaurant, in contrast, remained segregated. There were no more protests there. The restaurant kept open until July 2, 1964. It closed on that day, and the owner put up a sign. He was a man of principle; he just didn't believe in being pushed around. July 2, 1964, was the day that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, making it illegal to deny service to black people in restaurants like this one.
So, one year after our acquittal, the law was brought into accord with what we had been contending for. The Civil Rights Act itself was a direct result of Birmingham, without any question, so the "Little Birmingham" of which we were a part was also part of a ground swell of protest that led to that Act, and to the end of Jim Crow all over the South. So there was a sense of the specialness, the participating in a historical moment that one had.
A couple of personal observations, and then one general one that I'd like to close with.I think my children had a good lesson in civics. The older one, who was then almost ten, told his sister, who was seven, that daddy had been arrested and was going to jail. And the younger one said, quite loyal to the father, and quite correct, "My daddy's no criminal." Now she herself is a lawyer, and has to reflect on our system of criminal justice. I think that incident made a difference, because it helped her to understand that sometimes those people who are in the jails are not the criminals, and those people who are putting them in the jails, sometimes are the criminals, and you don't accept things at face value.
The other thing I learned was not nearly as pleasant. It was not a happy lesson. It's something I've learned that's very useful to know as an historian, as a scholar of the movement; and that is that fear and violence can take a heavy toll. Some months, maybe six months, after these events had taken place, I received a letter from someone, I don't know who it was, asking me if I would come to Mississippi for the summer of 1964. The Freedom Summer of 1964 was one of the great events of the Civil Rights Movement. Students and young people came to that state in huge numbers, and conducted Freedom Schools, voter registration drives, and tried to develop a sense of courage and confidence, and to work with the people of Mississippi during that great summer, and it was a huge event. Well, somebody asked me if I would come down and do something, I can't remember what it was. I think I was asked to be director of the Freedom Schools. That was the job that Staughton Lynd actually took that summer, and I can't remember just what it was.
But I declined. I said, "Well, we're having a child this summer, I can't do that." It was spring, when we were going to have another child. And I didn't have any money, and I was going to teach summer school. Those were the reasons I gave. In fact, I was scared, and thinking about that later--you know I grew up in Alabama, but knowing what had happened in Charlottesville, and knowing what in the world could happen in Mississippi, and a lot of it did happen that summer-- most of you know what happened to Cheney, Schwerner, and Goodman, and the same thing happened to others. I was really just scared, and so I passed up that great opportunity and I didn't go, because of having had this experience in Charlottesville. Now, there were a lot of people who aren't cowards who did go. But I believe that given the Klan and others who perpetrated violence there too--they knew, and they were right when they said intimidation, telephone calls, all of those things do have an effect. You know, everybody's not a courageous person. So think what that means to the persons who went on day after day after day in Mississippi, Alabama, and here, and lots of other places. It takes an awful lot; it's a very extraordinary thing.
So, in the end, I applaud you for studying the Sixties all during these sessions that you're having. We who were living then, and who were privileged to be a part of it, either as foot soldiers or as observers, lived through a rare moment, when we could help, in however small a way, to make a momentous change in the society that we had grown up in, to help bring about the greatest change the South had experienced since the Civil War. It was very exciting, very rare, to be able to be a part of it.