Fifty years ago, when the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, then a high school freshman, decided to use the “whites-only” public library in Greenville, S.C., he wasn’t thinking about making history, he said.
He just knew it wasn’t fair that the “black” public library didn’t have the book he needed for a school report, and a request to the “white” library was a six-day wait.
“I didn’t have six days. I had to go back to school, and I cried,” said the Rainbow/ PUSH founder, whose annual national civil rights conference kicks off here Saturday.
So Jackson walked into the library with seven other black high school students, grabbed a book, sat down and read, knowing it would be only a matter of time.
It reportedly took 15 minutes. The Greenville 8 were arrested, handcuffed, removed from the library and jailed on July 17, 1960, initiating one of the pivotal moments of the civil rights movement.
It was a critical juncture in what would become a lifetime of activism, and at this 50th anniversary, Jackson and six of his partners in crime — one has died — will reunite at the conference.
“All of us went for our own reasons. Many of us did not know each other,” Jackson recounted. “The ’54 Brown vs. Board of Education decision had passed, and nothing had happened. That summer was a pregnant moment in time. A season of struggle had begun against legal segregation. We were pushing against the walls. On that day, we eight students went to jail fighting for our dignity.”
Arrested with him were Sterling High School students Joan Mattison Daniel, Elaine Means, Margaree Seawright, Dorris Wright, Hattie Smith Wright and Benjamin Downs, who will attend the PUSH Excel Scholarship Gala at 7 p.m. Monday at McCormick Place West. The eighth, Willie Joe Wright, is deceased.
Jackson draws upon King’s quote above about change in honoring the group, along with the Greensboro 4 — North Carolina A&T students who sat at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., on Feb. 1, 1960, triggering sit-ins across the South. Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair and Joseph McNeil will be there. David Richmond is deceased.
Others being honored include Ernest Green — one of the 1957 Little Rock Nine group of black students who integrated Little Rock Central High in Arkansas.
“All of us were testing the ’54 decision across the South, state by state, consummated with the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” said Jackson, whose conference is in its 39th year.
“What we knew as horizontal segregation is over. Today, it’s vertical segregation,” he said. “We are a free but not equal society, and that’s because of unenforced civil rights laws — unenforced fair lending laws, unenforced fair housing laws, an unenforced Community Reinvestment Act. We need an urban policy.”
The conference takes place at PUSH headquarters, 930 E. 50th St., Saturday and Sunday, and at Hyatt McCormick Place from Monday through Wednesday. The public can visit www.rainbow push.org for more information or registration.
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