Each year as the annual King Day march in Chapel Hill rounds the corner at Roberson and Franklin streets, my gaze naturally diverts to a spot along a row of shops that once was the Colonial Drug Store. It’s a wine bar now, making it only a little harder to connect with that day in late February 1960 when a group of high school students changed the dynamics and the stakes in the quest for civil rights in southern Orange County.
The story has a number of versions, but they all share a common set of facts: Four students from Lincoln High School, fired up by the Feb. 1 Woolworth’s sit-in by N.C. A&T students in Greensboro, staged a spontaneous sit-in at the lunch counter in the back of the drug store (where whites could take a seat, but blacks had to order take out). The next day a larger group of students returned and staged another demonstration. The protests spread to other segregated establishments along Franklin Street and beyond. A new kind of movement began, one that took direct action, one with the passion and energy of the town’s black youths at its vanguard.
“A lot of people were glad to see the younger kids out doing something,” Harold Foster, one of the original four high school students and a boycott organizer, told author John Ehle a few years after the event, “but there were people in their 30s and 40s who were sort of envious and thought we were being opportunists. Some of them didn’t go along with our militant attitude, but we tried to explain to them that we were from a different era.”
As the march passes the site where that line was crossed, where the youth said “now” while their elders and the supposedly liberal town establishment said “be patient,” I can’t help searching the crowd, counting up the young people. There are always a few–sometimes dozens–and they’re ushered to the head of the march to help carry the banners.
This year, the Monday march at noon had a pretty good youth turnout, still not enough high schoolers, though. “The ones we really need are the ones who are probably still in bed this morning,” one march organizer said.
Later, addressing marchers gathered at the Franklin Street Post Office, Maxecine Mitchell, executive director of Youth Creating Change (www.youthcreatingchange.org) underlined the need for more young people to get involved. But the discrimination they face every day in the schools and on the streets, she says, has got too many asking, “Why bother?”
“Folks in Orange County, you know that our young people have lost their zeal,” she says, “and we have to find a way to get it back.”
Aside from the need for more teens, turnout was good on Monday, with the crowd a little larger and a little more vocal than in recent years.
“People are talking with each other more, trying to support each other more,” the Rev. L. Gene Hatley says as we walk up the street. Their reasons vary, he says. “But I think that a lot of people have the feeling that things aren’t right.”
Stepping to the microphone, the Rev. Curtis Gatewood laid the reasons for that discontent at the feet of the man in the White House who is trying “to cluster bomb his way to peace.”
Echoing King, who was assassinated as the anti-war movement and the Civil Rights movements were at a point of convergence, it is time, he says, to declare what is being done in our name in Iraq as immoral and “join the (war) protesters.”
“While we’re coming home in body bags, they’re coming home with money bags,” he says of Bush and Cheney cronies raking in post-war rebuilding contracts.
It is a time to be bold, he says, and to show leadership.
Churches and community organizations are focused more “on the crumbs of grant writing than the conciseness of freedom fighting.”
“If ever there was a time to stand up, this is the time,” he says.
Speaker after speaker, with varying degrees of boldness about the root cause, lined up to echo that call.
It is the most fitting way to honor Dr. King, they said, and to honor those kids who took the bold step of sitting down in the back of a drug store 43 years ago.