There have been several reminders this past year that 50 years ago thousands of African Americans, mostly young people, were actively protesting on the streets and in the restaurants and hotels of the South with the goal of breaking the iron grip of segregation. The local cities and towns were using police dogs, water cannons, and jail to protect their system of racial subjugation. In August of 1963, one hundred thousand people, including folks from the Vineyard, joined in the March on Washington.
I was among a group of young men from New England — clergy and seminary students — who were determined to get further involved in this movement. The group included the late Henry Bird, rector of the Vineyard’s Episcopal churches, and Harvard professor Harvey Cox, a frequent Island visitor.
At the group’s suggestion, I phoned the Atlanta office of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and it was proposed that our group focus on the little city of Williamston, N.C. The African American youth there had been demonstrating for 80 days, and had been beaten and jailed with no apparent charge. If others from the north would join them, it might make a difference.
The northern group, now 15 strong, drove to Williamston in early November of 1963, where we were warmly welcomed by the youth of Williamston, led by the energetic and charismatic local organizer Golden Frinks. After a few days of training in nonviolent direct action, we demonstrated, were jailed, and began a fast to protest the segregated jail. Williamston was now in the newspapers, including the Vineyard Gazette.
Once released, the group spent several weeks talking with local people and encouraging them to register to vote. Later we made plans for 80 young people from Williamston to come north at Christmas time where they visited areas throughout New England, holding “mass meetings” to bring the spirit of the civil rights movement to the North, including the Vineyard.
Later, in 1964, a group of Vineyard women launched a food and clothing drive and in May delivered these donations to Williamston. The group was made up of Virginia Mayhew, Polly Murphy, Peggy Lilienthal, Nancy Whiting and Nancy Smith. Protesting the segregated Sears, Roebuck & Co., this group also was arrested and jailed overnight. The Island was now clearly an important player in the movement. A plaque on the African American history trail, located near the town hall in West Tisbury, commemorates their trip.
Fifty years later, the question is, what changed? Is the South and the country as a whole a better place because of the direct action at that time? The answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no. To search out the answer I spent a week in Williamston in November to interview blacks and whites and to draw whatever conclusions I could.
There is no question that the movement made an immediate and lasting change in the lives of the youth involved. Born into a world where they were subjects of an unjust system, the youth began to take control of their own destiny, despite the odds. The vision of life’s possibilities broadened as they were empowered by the movement. The action taken during those years was a rebirth for many of them and they now had a purpose for their lives, bigger than themselves. The significance of this new lease on life was summed up by Franklin McCain, one of the four college students who started the sit-in movement in nearby Greensboro, N.C. He has described his action in the movement as, “The best feeling of my life.”
Thanks to federal legislation signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the town of Williamston was also changed. The schools were integrated, at least nominally. Public facilities could no longer legally turn blacks away, and “White only” signs came down. Taking advantage of their newly found right to vote, African Americans were elected to town commissions and as members of the school board.
The momentum for radical change in the community, however, did not last. By the 1970s the city of Williamston, like most of the nation, fell into economic decline. Jobs, having been eliminated because of automation and cheap labor abroad, left no place for millions of American workers. Machines were now doing the work of Williamston agricultural workers. In effect, economic deterioration pushed the civil rights movement aside. One third of the population of Williamston still lives below the official poverty line — 41 per cent of the blacks and 33 per cent of the whites. Even those who are employed are paid relatively little compared to statewide statistics. The average annual salary of the 20 policemen in town is $23,300, marginally less than the official national poverty line of $23,550 for a family of four. The town center has been hollowed out by the failing economy, and what was once a bustling, though segregated, town center now includes a number of boarded-up buildings. It is depressing to walk through town.
And how have attitudes changed? There are clear signs of openness and cooperation between black and white citizens, including some limited socializing between the races. Some white folks, too intimidated by the Klan and other segregationists in the 1960s to socialize across racial lines, now proudly work together with nonwhites. Yet it is easy to observe in Williamston, pockets of deeply ensconced racism, as is true throughout the nation. Indeed, many of the issues facing Williamston are beyond the control of the city, but part of the larger national narrative.
That progress in racial integration and cooperation seems to have stalled nationally does not in any way change the fact that the Vineyard has played a significant role in the movement of racial justice in the United States. Yet the roots of bigotry run deep and the Island needs to be continually vigilant so that no minority group is isolated for any reason.
Happily, many of the movement people of 50 years ago, in both the North and the South, continued to spend their lives working for racial and economic equality, and subsequent generations have taken up the cause. As the Talmud says: “You are not obliged to finish the work, but neither are you permitted to cease from it.”
Paul Chapman is a seasonal resident of East Chop.