On February 1,1960, four freshmen students from N.C. A&T asked for coffee at the lunch counter in the Woolworth’s “dime” store in downtown Greensboro, just 25 miles north of Asheboro. When they were denied service, they refused to leave, in a nonviolent protest that became known as a “sit-in.” The next day they were joined by twenty more students; on the third day there were more than 60 demonstrators, and on the fourth day, more than 300, as the protest spread down the street to the nearby Kress lunch counter. Within a week, the protest was joined by other cities in North Carolina; within a month, sit-ins were occurring all over the South. On March 16th, President Eisenhower supported the students, saying that he was “deeply sympathetic with the efforts of any group to enjoy the rights of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution.”
The first sit-ins, sponsored by the NCAACP Youth Council in 1958, had desegregated lunch counters in Kansas and Oklahoma. The Greensboro protests gathered wide media attention and resulted in the tactic spreading all over the South. Success came faster in some places: students in Nashville, TN achieved citywide desegregation in May, 1960. In Greensboro the black employees of Woolworth’s were the first to be served at the store’s lunch counter, on July 25, 1960. The entire Woolworth’s chain was desegregated the next day.
What is the history of the civil rights movement in Randolph County? With our history of Quaker anti-slavery activism and the Underground Railroad, was Randolph out in front of desegregation? Nothing has been published on this subject, and little research has been done. One exception can be found through the website of the Southern Oral History Project interview database, at http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/sohp/id/4046 . This is a recorded interview of Melvin Benjamin Marley, born in Ramseur in 1943, by Sarah McNulty, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. Marley was a participant in a series of sit-ins that took place at businesses along Sunset Avenue that finally resulted in the desegregation of public eating establishments in Asheboro.
This is a uniquely valuable primary source document, available in a uniquely modern way, but it well illustrates some traditional challenges in taking oral history alone as the last word in research. Marley, as a freshman at NC A&T, also participated in the Greensboro sit-ins. He remembers the Asheboro demonstrations as part of the same continuum of social protest.
“So me and my brother was in college at A&T State University in Greensboro and the sit-ins there was going on at the same time, so we would actually go to jail up there through the week and come home on the weekend. So we was home one weekend and they were having demonstrations in Asheboro so some people approached us and said, since ya’ll… were in those in Greensboro, would you like to come help us organize? So we came over and organized with them…”
Newspaper accounts actually show that the Asheboro sit-ins were nearly four years after the Woolworth sit-ins in Greensboro, beginning Saturday January 25th, 1964, and still going strong as of February the 17th, 1964. While the Marley brothers may have joined the original sit-ins as freshman, Asheboro’s eating establishments remained segregated well into the end of their senior year. I think this is an example of the passage of time telescoping the time frame of history- fifty years later, the four-year time frame seems almost simultaneous in memory.
Melvin’s memory of the details seems unclouded, however. Two NAACP organizers, a Reverend Banks and a Robert Blow, of Thomasville, conducted meetings at the Greater St. John’s Baptist Church to map out the protests. Groups were sent to the Walgreen’s soda fountain, the Little Castle sandwich shop, and to Hop’s Bar-B-Que. Melvin and his twin brother Elvin were assigned to Hop’s, a restaurant in a converted taxi stand seating just 21 stools at a counter. Hop’s was the eponymous establishment of Burrell “Hop” Hopkins, who opened it in 1954 after four years as a cook at the StarLite Drive-In on Salisbury Street near Bossong Hosiery Mills. When Hopkins died in 1986, the community remembered him fondly. “He was one of the free-heartedest men you ever meet,” said Leon Strickland, an employee for 28 years. “He wanted to give folks the impression he was mean as hell, but he was 100 percent the opposite,” said Hal York, a long-time customer. (See article by Chip Womick in The Courier-Tribune, November 28, 1986). But whatever his eulogy, Hopkins was cast in the black hat role in this historic drama. He barred the door of his restaurant, saying, according to Marley, “No, you can’t be served here!” [Katie Snuggs, also arrested that day, remember Hopkins saying “You niggers can’t eat here!”] In response, the demonstrators” just lay down in front of the door where nobody could go in… laying down at arm’s length, everybody touching the tip of the other’s hand, forming a big circle [around the building] where nobody could get through.”
The protest quickly attracted white bystanders. Marley recalled that the demonstrators took “a lot of abuse, just laying there. It was a really, really hard job to keep everybody under control, not to show anger or not to say anything to anybody… just lay there, a peaceful-type demonstration. My twin brother was laying beside of me and a lady came up and talked real big and spit in his face and when she spit in his face, I caught a’hold to his hand because he was about to get up and I held him down and I said, “No, No, No!” And while we were laying there, there was another incident; a lady walked up with her high heels on and took the shoe and started beating on one of the demonstrators…”
They didn’t react, said Marley, because “we had something in mind. It had to be nonviolent because you couldn’t accomplish anything by rolling up your sleeve and taking someone on. The hecklers called us many names, the one that was the most devastating to us was to be called niggers; niggers, go home, such as that was being said…. And with the name calling, it hurt to a point that you would want to do something, but you would realize that this was nonviolent and that was the only way it would work because these individuals that came to Asheboro were playing under the Martin Luther King system. And so… we took the abuse and laid there, spit upon, kicked, hit and stuff. It was hard, but we had a goal in mind… because we didn’t want anybody hurt, but we wanted justice.”
When the police came the demonstrators were arrested, but refused to walk to the police cars. “We tried to get as many people of size to help because that would not only make the lines larger but also the police would have a hard time picking them up; because we wouldn’t get up, we’d lay there; they’d have to bodily take us to the car to put us in. And we’d just lay limp and wouldn’t cooperate with being led from laying down to be put in police cars.” With the Marleys at Hop’s was “a lady named Emma Jean Stinson, she weighed somewhere about three hundred and some pounds… so they said, “Mrs. Stinson, will you please get up?” And she said no, and it took about four of them to get her up and put her in the car. And you know, by the time they had put all of us in the car the policemen were sweating and tireder than we were and probably wanted something to eat.”
“So they took us to jail, to the old Randolph County jail… And they would lock us up in cells that usually hold ten or twelve people, but at one time there was something like thirty-five of us in one cell… the women were downstairs and the men were upstairs. So the organizers were out in the parking lot and we would…call off our names, who all was in jail. And… they would go back and get people with property to come and sign our bonds so we could get out of jail…. our parents that had property would come and get us. And then other people that didn’t have kids, there was a man in the city back then named Mr. Tom Brewer and Mr. Lon Strickland who owned right much property on the east side… and they signed a lot of bonds.”
For an “objective” account of the event described by Melvin Marley, see the entry on this blog “60 Negroes Arrested in Sit-In Incidents,” from The Courier-Tribune, Monday, January 27, 1964.