JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – Mississippi on Tuesday unveiled a historical marker commemorating the sit-in exactly 50 years earlier at a whites-only lunch counter in downtown Jackson, a pivotal event in breaking down state-sanctioned segregation.
The Woolworth’s store has been gone for decades, and the site is now a grassy space between a parking garage and a high-rise office building. However, social changes prompted by the civil rights movement are very much in evidence in a state with a large number of black elected officials.
A racially mixed group, led by students and faculty members from historically black Tougaloo College in north Jackson, participated in the sit-in on May 28, 1963. The group was attacked by an angry white mob, including teenagers from nearby Central High School. Some of the peaceful civil rights protesters were beaten, while others were doused with ketchup, mustard and sugar. Jackson police stood by and made few arrests while the riot dragged on for hours.
“Although they took their lives in their hands, they changed Mississippi and they changed America,” former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Reuben V. Anderson told more than 150 people at the dedication ceremony.
The historical marker is off Capitol Street, two blocks west of the Governor’s Mansion. It’s the 12th entry on the Mississippi Freedom Trail, a series of signs the state started putting up in 2011 to remember people and events of the civil rights movement.
The sit-in at the Jackson five-and-dime was similar to others across the South, though Jackson’s occurred more than three years after a more famous one in Greensboro, N.C.
The nine who sat at the counter at various times during the protest were Tougaloo students Anne Moody, Pearlena Lewis, Memphis Norman and Joan Trumpauer; Tougaloo faculty members John Salter, who was a sociology professor, and Lois Chaffee, who was a reading and writing instructor; Jackson State College student Walter Williams; Congress of Racial Equality worker George Raymond; and Tom Beard, a student at Jackson’s Jim Hill High School.
The Rev. Ed King, a Methodist minister who was Tougaloo’s chaplain at the time, stood in Woolworth’s as an observer, and made phone calls to provide updates to Medgar Evers, Mississippi leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Evers worked at the NAACP office the day of the protest, to stay in touch with the outside world about what was happening.
Trumpauer, of Alexandria, Va., later married and became Joan Trumpauer Mulholland. She said Tuesday that the reporters and photographers who covered the sit-in “were in as much danger as those of us at the counter” because the crowd took out some of its anger on the journalists.
Two weeks after the sit-in, on June 12, 1963, Evers was assassinated outside his family’s home in north Jackson.
“Above all, remember Medgar,” Trumpauer Mulholland said.
The Woolworth’s sit-in was part of a months-long boycott that the NAACP led against white-owned businesses in downtown Jackson.
Starting in late 1962 and extending weeks beyond the sit-in, the boycott had several goals: the hiring of black police officers in Jackson; the elimination of segregated water fountains and lunch counters; the use of courtesy titles for black adults, who routinely were called by their first names rather than “Mr.” or “Mrs.”; the hiring of black clerks at Capitol Street stores; and the change to a first-come, first-served approach for waiting on customers at downtown stores rather than making black customers wait until whites had been helped.
“Today, that doesn’t seem like a lot. But, 50 years ago that was a huge deal,” said Anderson, who was a Tougaloo junior in May 1963 but did not participate in the Woolworth’s action.
The morning of the sit-in, Lewis left her parents’ Jackson home wearing a new suit. She didn’t tell her family where she was going, her brother, the Rev. Alphonso Lewis, recalled. The family learned about the sit-in, and her involvement, from news coverage.
“When we did pick Pearlena up and she came home, the new suit with mustard, ketchup, all kinds of things on it and in her hair, she was in good spirits,” Alphonso Lewis said of his late sister. “If she had not been in good spirits, feeling that something special had been accomplished, then all of us probably would have lost it.”
Raymond, who’s also now deceased, was a man of strong religious faith, said his sister, Verna Polk: “He believed in doing what he thought was right, no matter what the outcome.”
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