March 2, 1961. At noon, almost two hundred African-American students gather for a rally at Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina. About half of them are female, about half male. For the most part, they are students from the two main African-American colleges in Columbia: Allen University and Benedict College. Today, these students will participate in one of the largest demonstrations against racial segregation so far. Today, they will stand up to the governor of South Carolina, march to the South Carolina State House, and help shape the future of the Civil Rights Movement.
Seven years earlier, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously against racial segregation. However, since then, many white southerners had responded with open defiance, and the practice of racial segregation persisted. Therefore, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, student-activists across the South started to challenge the practice of racial segregation more and more boldly.
In February 1960, in Greensboro, North Carolina, four African-American college students sat down at a “whites-only” lunch counter, and asked to be served. Though they were refused service, they did not leave their seats. Within days, more than fifty students had volunteered to continue the sit-in. Within weeks, the movement had spread to other college campuses.
The time had come to pick a side. It was easy enough for white Americans, especially politicians, to oppose segregation in theory, as many had done, but the time had come to do more. The time had come to confront the practice of segregation itself, and dismantle the institutions which upheld it.
Around the same time the Greensboro sit-in began, Allen University and Benedict College students held rallies against racial segregation in Columbia. On March 2, 1960, about fifty Allen and Benedict students participated in lunch counter sit-ins at two department stores.
The following night, several white men drove onto the campus of Allen University, burned a cross, and threw bricks at one of the school buildings. Undaunted, African-American students in Columbia continued to organize and demonstrate.
On March 14, Simon Bouie of Allen University and Talmadge Neal of Benedict College led a protest march to Eckerd’s luncheonette, another local business which operated under a policy of racial segregation. Both students were arrested. On March 15, five African-American students from Benedict College—Charles Barr, David Carter, Richard Counts, Milton Greene, and Johnny Clark—were arrested after refusing to leave another whites-only lunch counter.
Students continued to stage small-scale demonstrations throughout the spring, summer, and fall. At a sit-in at the beginning of February, in 1961, police arrested twelve students. Thirteen more, who had gathered outside the jail, were also taken into custody.
As the anniversaries marking many of the previous year’s actions began to approach, the South Carolina Council on Human Relations hosted its first-ever student workshop at Allen University. The theme was “The Role of the Student in Achieving Human Rights.” The highlight of the event was a keynote address given by Ella Baker, the dynamic veteran civil rights organizer, who was then serving as the primary strategist for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
On February 18, 1961, more students were arrested, this time for protesting racially segregated services at the Greyhound bus terminal in Columbia. The movement was growing, pressure was mounting, and civil rights organizations were determined to keep up the momentum. At a regional conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), student-leaders helped plan “a big push.” It was set to begin on March 2, 1961, with a major inaugural event: a march to the South Carolina State House.
South Carolina’s conservative governor, Fritz Hollings, warned them against it. Allen and Benedict student-leaders were informed in no uncertain terms that if they insisted on marching to the State House they and anyone who joined them would be arrested. However, many of the students remembered all too well a time when, four years earlier, the Ku Klux Klan had marched to the State House. If the KKK had been allowed to march to the State House, then surely African Americans ought to have the right to do the same. “Why shouldn’t we be allowed to assemble, and petition the state legislature,” the students wondered, “especially since all we want is for the state government to obey the Supreme Court ruling, respect our civil rights, and desegregate education?”
At the rally at Zion Baptist Church before the march, twenty-one-year-old Jim Clyburn stood in the front row. Clyburn said later, “We were challenging a system that needed to be challenged. We knew we were going to be arrested, and we said: All we have to do is get our case to the United States Supreme Court. Because of the decision issued in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education, we just knew we would be vindicated.”
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The twenty-five minute meeting at Zion Baptist Church closed with a hymn. Then, just before 12:30pm, the students set out to march to the South Carolina State House.
Columbia City Manager Irving McNayr had told a student-leader, David Carter of Benedict College, that the city would not allow “mass demonstrating” in the downtown area, and that the students should restrict themselves to groups of fifteen, or be subject to city law. Therefore, in groups of fifteen, they emerged from Zion Baptist Church, one group at a time, and marched down Columbia’s streets. The students were mostly quiet, but some carried placards, which read: “You may jail our bodies but not our souls” and “Down with segregation.”
It took the first group of students about ten minutes to walk from the church to the State House. Not long after they arrived, dozens of police descended on the demonstrators.
The police were led by an officer wearing a badge identifying him as a lieutenant in the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), a statewide investigative agency. According to an article published on the following day in The State, Columbia’s local newspaper, when the first group of students arrived at the front of the State House, where Main Street comes to a dead end, the lieutenant told the students that they could not use the State House grounds for demonstrations. Walking around the grounds, he told the group, would be a breach of the peace.
Then Charles McDew stepped out of the first group of students, and asked, “May we pass?” When they received no response from the police, he and his group walked onto the grounds. The police lieutenant shouted, “You do not have any right to demonstrate on this property!” Three or four of the students were carrying placards. The police admonished them against singing, as “singing would be considered a demonstration.”
The group walked around the State House, came back via Sumter Street, and then began walking west along Gervais. They stopped at the entrance to the horseshoe parking lot in front of the State House grounds. The group was met by a second SLED lieutenant.
McDew asked the police, “May we go through?”
The lieutenant answered, “No.”
The group walked across the horseshoe parking lot, and stopped. They were told that walking around “these State House grounds constitutes a demonstration intended to incite disorder.” The group then took a left turn, and walked onto the grounds. After they had taken about ten steps across the grass, they were placed under arrest.
The second group was walking down Gervais Street, opposite the Hotel Wade Hampton, and entered the grounds at Assembly and Gervais. After they got to the middle of the grounds, police officers, who had been watching their movements, ran into position and placed them under arrest. Even so, more and more groups of African-American students kept streaming onto the State House grounds.
White passers-by had noticed the demonstration, and began to gather in a crowd across the street. Many of them were openly hostile to the civil rights demonstrators. Some were merely curious.
Shortly before one o’clock, City Manager McNayr arrived on the State House grounds. He ordered the remaining civil rights demonstrators to disperse, or face arrest for disorderly conduct.
Carter, the student-leader, gave a speech. He urged his fellow students to persist in their struggle against “the indignity and inhumanity of segregation.” The students clapped and sang “The Star Spangled Banner.” Police moved in to arrest them.
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From the edge of the crowd across the street emerged a skinny white seventeen-year-old, with a thick mop of red-brown hair. He crossed the street, stepped onto the State House grounds, and came over to the demonstrators. That skinny teenager was my father, the future sculptor, Frederick Hart.
“I was just walking by,” my father said later. “I happened to know some of the demonstrators. They were from Benedict College. I went over and started talking to them. That irritated the police, who told me to move along.”
Clyburn recalled the moment when my father joined the march. “I remember him standing on the curb watching us and just spontaneously joining the march,” he said.
My father came over and asked why his friends were being arrested. Then he exchanged a few heated words with the police: “At that point, I said, ‘Screw you.’ And I joined the demonstration.”
The police attacked the students, cuffing them, and pushing them into police cruisers and buses. The police grabbed Alma Gregg, a music instructor, and dragged her into a squad car by her hair. They arrested all of them, the second-largest group of civil rights demonstrators to be arrested up to that time: one hundred eighty-seven African-American students, two NAACP officials, and one white student.
According to the article in The State, the police arrested so many so quickly that they ran out of vehicles to use to transport them to jail. My father and many others were hauled off to jail in police cruisers and buses, but with no other means of transportation left, the remaining demonstrators were forced to line up in pairs, and march down Senate Street. Down six city blocks, dozens of students were escorted on foot to the city jail.
At the jail, City Manager McNayr had the police bring all the demonstrators into the courtroom, where he intended to give them a lecture. Instead, questions came at him from all sides. “Why am I arrested?” one student asked.
McNayr replied, “You are under arrest because we will not tolerate a large group of citizens, white or colored, demonstrating in the downtown area.” Before the packed courtroom, the city manager reminded the students that they had been told that the city “would not tolerate mass movements in the downtown area.”
While waiting to be processed, a group of students recited the Lord’s Prayer. Two NAACP officials sat in the middle of the students. One of them was NAACP official Reverend Isaiah DeQuincey Newman, a Methodist pastor who, as an eight-year-old child, had witnessed the execution of an African-American man at the hands of the KKK. For about two minutes, the students listened to Newman quote Scripture from memory.
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My father had grown up in a small town in South Carolina. Back then, everyone called him “Ricky.” His mother died when he was very young, and when his father remarried, he moved the family up to northern Virginia, near Washington, DC. However, Ricky was a rebellious teenager, so he was sent to live with his mother’s family back in South Carolina. Her family was a large family; it included his Aunt Essie, who was like a second mother to him, and his cousin Ernie, who had attended the University of South Carolina (USC) in Columbia. Cousin Ernie still lived in Columbia in 1960 when my father was accepted to USC, so it was Ernie’s responsibility to look after him.
According to Ernie, “I got a telephone call from [Aunt] Essie on March 3, 1961. She said Ricky had been arrested with the negroes who were marching for civil rights and for me to get him out of jail. I went to the jail and was told that he had paid his bail and left. They said they were glad to be rid of him. When I went to his rental room and inquired about Ricky, his landlady told me very rudely to ‘get off my porch and do not come back again.’ I checked with Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and they had no idea where he was and hoped they would never see him again. My next call was to a girl that Ricky was dating. She would not tell me anything so I left a message with her: ‘If you see Ricky, tell him to call cousin Ernie.’
“About three days later, Ricky called me and I picked him up near Valley Park in the Five Points area of Columbia. He was dirty and hungry and emotionally upset. I took him to my home where he got a good long bath. My wife, Phyllis, washed his clothes, fixed dinner for him, and he ate like a hungry bear. Ricky told me that he just happened to be walking near the State House grounds. He went nearer and saw the police arresting the marchers and loading them into police cars and buses. He didn’t like what he saw so he approached the police and asked, ‘Why are you arresting them? They are not doing anything wrong.’ The policeman arrested Ricky, and told him to get in the bus.
“Ricky also told me that while he was in the jail cell, three big white men came in and just stood there staring at him. Each one had on a big red necktie with the letters KKK printed on them. Ricky asked them what they wanted, and they told him, ‘We just want to get a good look at you, boy. When you get out, we are going to tar and feather you.’ This is what upset Ricky, and he told me that he had been hiding out and sleeping in a cemetery.
“We then called Ricky’s dad and he said he would drive down from Washington, D.C. and take him back to his home. He went to sleep and slept like a log until his father showed up.”
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Back home, they had already received word from USC. The school’s official reaction: Expulsion. Effective immediately.
The local press was intent upon blaming northern troublemakers; they emphasized that my father’s father lived “near Washington,” and declared, “The entire move had an out-of-state flavor to it; a New York City newspaper had information about the planned demonstration hours before the march actually took place.”
Rev. Newman was quoted as saying that the “youth activities of the NAACP have been stepped up in South Carolina.” Asked if this was “the big push,” Rev. Newman answered, “I should think it is the beginning of the big push.” Asked what happens next, he answered, “We will have to consult with the students.”
On the same night my father escaped Columbia, Carter and another student-leader, Lennie Glover, were walking down Main Street. They had just performed a routine check on a sit-in at the Woolworth’s when, on the sidewalk outside, they were suddenly attacked by several white men. Glover was stabbed, and seriously injured. The attackers were never caught.
On March 7, Carter and Glover and the rest of the one hundred eighty-seven African-American students who had been arrested on the State House grounds went to trial. Neither the two NAACP officials arrested with the students nor my father were among those listed for trial. Each one of the African-American students was convicted of committing a breach of the peace, fined $10 to $100, and given a jail sentence of ten to thirty days.
A violent backlash was ripping through the South. Brutally suppressing civil rights demonstrators, and targeting their leaders, local authorities worked hand-in-hand with the KKK, and other dedicated white supremacists. In May, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized integrated “Freedom Rides” to defy segregation in interstate transportation, and freedom riders were arrested in North Carolina, and beaten in South Carolina. In Alabama, a bus was burned and the riders were attacked with baseball bats and tire irons.
After losing in trial court, the one hundred eighty-seven students who had been convicted of committing a breach of the peace on the State House grounds in South Carolina appealed to the state’s Supreme Court. Upholding their convictions, the court ruled in December 1961 that the police had given the students ample opportunity to desist from further expressive activity, and called the march “a noisy demonstration in defiance of orders” and a bunch of “boisterousness.” With the assistance of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the students took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Led by James Edwards, one of the first students to be arrested that day, the students insisted that their participation in the “Edwards March” was a constitutionally protected effort to assemble and petition the state authorities for redress of grievances. Jack Greenberg, the director-counsel for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, handled oral arguments for the students. In this and in many other ways, organizations like the NAACP, SNCC, and CORE—as well as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—made themselves indispensable in the fight to overcome racial segregation in the South.
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On February 25, 1963, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Edwards v. South Carolina: On the basis of their constitutional rights to assemble and petition the government, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions of all the students. In fact, the actions of the students were said to represent the epitome of First Amendment freedoms. “They peaceably assembled at the site of the State Government and there peaceably expressed their grievances to the citizens of South Carolina, along with the Legislative Bodies of South Carolina,” Justice Potter Stewart wrote. “The circumstances in this case reflect an exercise of these constitutional rights in their most pristine and classic form.”
As Clyburn had said, “All we have to do is get our case to the United States Supreme Court… We just knew we would be vindicated.” For Clyburn, the march to the State House helped inspire a passion for a career in politics. Clyburn was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he is now serving his fifteenth term in office.
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The Court’s decision in Edwards not only exonerated the students, it became an important foundation for the way in which the Court was able to interpret the First Amendment to protect civil rights demonstrators throughout the 1960s. The pattern would continue in later cases, involving other marches and demonstrations:
In December 1961, Ben Elton Cox led two thousand students on a march near a courthouse in downtown Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Sheriff’s deputies tear-gassed the students, and on the next day, while Cox was preaching, officers entered the church and arrested him in his pulpit. Cox faced charges of criminal conspiracy, disturbing the peace, obstructing public passages, and picketing before a courthouse. In a pair of decisions in Cox v. Louisiana (1965), the U.S. Supreme Court reversed his convictions. The Court majority found the facts “strikingly similar” to those in Edwards.
The Court’s decision in Edwards impacted not only Cox, but also other civil rights leaders who faced similar criminal charges. Attorneys for a civil rights leader from Birmingham, Alabama—the indomitable Fred Shuttlesworth, whom the KKK had once tried to assassinate with sixteen sticks of dynamite—relied on the Edwards decision to successfully challenge his conviction for conducting a parade without a permit.
After Harry Brown and four other men sat in a public library to protest the library’s whites-only reading room policy, they were arrested for breach of the peace. When the five men appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, in 1966, their convictions were struck down. Once again, Edwards served as an important legal foundation.
Finally, when comedian and activist Dick Gregory led a protest against the segregation of public schools, police officers arrested Gregory, and he was convicted of disorderly conduct. The Supreme Court reversed his conviction in Gregory v. City of Chicago (1969). Chief Justice Earl Warren began his opinion with the words, “This is a simple case.” He proceeded to explain that Gregory’s protest was a protected expressive activity under the First Amendment. The precedent was clear: Edwards v. South Carolina.
My father died in 1999, and so, sadly, he was unable to attend the commemoration of the Edwards March, which was held in Columbia in 2014. The event served as a reunion for many of the other participants, and as an opportunity to educate the public on the struggle for civil rights in South Carolina. A key component of the 2014 event was the dedication of a series of commemorative signs, describing events leading up to and during the march to the State House. A sign now stands in front of Zion Baptist Church, identifying this beautiful sanctuary as the launching point for the march, and a “safe haven for student activists.”