Sunday, January 23, 2011

Lest we forget what happened 50 yrs. ago in Rock Hill, S.C.

Here’s a story I’ve just completed helping commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Friendship Nine (“Jail/No Bail”) civil rights sit-in at McCrory’s Five & Dime Store in Rock Hill S.C.

Thanks very much to the following people for providing information to me for this piece: Marshall Doswell, David Boone, Melford Wilson, Bessie Moody-Lawrence, and W.T. "Dub" Massey.

It’s a new and exciting era in February 2011 in Rock Hill and York County—one open with all sorts of possibilities and opportunities.

And while things aren’t perfect if you’re a person of color, they could be much worse.

Flash back, for example, 50 years ago to that day in early 1961 when 10 young African-Americans (students from Friendship Junior College in Rock Hill) politely but firmly stood their ground at the then-segregated McCrory’s lunch counter on Main Street. When they refused to budge from that eating place after management would not serve them their orders of sandwiches and soft drinks, police arrested them on charges of breach of peace and trespassing.

The 10 civil rights activists were David Williamson Jr., Willie McCleod, John Gaines, Thomas Gaither, Clarence Graham, W.T "Dub" Massey, James Wells, Mack Workman, Charles Taylor and Robert McCullough. McCullough is deceased.

One of the students, Taylor, paid the $100 fine and returned to school. But the other nine suffered 30 days of hard labor, on the chain gang, at the county jail.

The nine students reasoned that their cause for human rights would draw more attention if they did time in jail.

Let those so-called Christian folks who handcuffed us and hauled us off to the chain gang feel guilty about what they’ve done when they go home to their soft beds and cozy homes.

The students also knew that the white power structure of that era had but so much time and money to deal with those who would challenge the status quo of the Jim Crow South.

How many black people, after all, can your stinkin, filthy jails hold?

Turns out, the young men were right. A movement gained traction. Thousands more brave (but nonviolent) black students joined the cause, sitting in at lunch counters across the South. They went to jail instead of bowing to the status quo of not being served in whites-only eating places.

Historians have said the national news media’s spotlighting of the “jail, no bail” strategy sparked a tipping point in the shaping of American public opinion in favor of the black protestors.

But if you believe all this happened in the blink of an eye in Rock Hill or elsewhere, you’d be mistaken.

The struggle for human rights—for an America where blacks and whites are treated the same and have the same opportunities for a quality life--was long, arduous and sometimes ugly.

And even today in Rock Hill and the rest of the South, some would say the struggle continues.

Yes, America has a black man as president and many African-Americans in key leadership positions in industry, business, education and the military. But in 2011 unemployment and prison incarceration rates and infant mortalities among blacks are much higher than those for whites. (In South Carolina, for example, a state that is about one-third black, 69 percent of the prison population is black. And in black inner-city neighborhoods throughout the U.S., the unemployment rate for blacks is about twice that for whites.) Another dismaying statistic: blacks in the U.S. earn only about 58 percent of what whites get paid, and the percentage of people of color in America living below the poverty line is much higher than that for whites.

On the other hand, if you compare the racial climate in Rock Hill of 2011 to that of 1961, our community has made giant strides.

An old newspaperman reflects on Rock Hill’s rocky past
Marshall Doswell, long-time retired associate editor of the Evening Herald newspaper in Rock Hill, noted how far we’ve come when he spoke in January 2007 at a plaque dedication ceremony honoring the Friendship Nine students.

There were actually two Rock Hills of 50 years ago, according to Doswell, now 89: one for blacks and one for white people.

“Three fourths of the people where white. They ran things,” Doswell recalled at that dedication ceremony. “The city council was white. The city administration was white. The police department was white. The fire department was white. The school board was white. The school administrators where white. The downtown business section was white. . . The Evening Herald where I worked was white, except for the press crew.

“And then there were the black people, the other fourth of the population. They had their own churches and their own neighborhoods. The black children went to all black schools. Their school buildings were not as nice. The jobs available to black people were at the low end of the scale. Black people could be maids, or servants, or janitors, or garbage collectors, or handymen. In the textile mills they could be sweepers or muscle heavy cotton bales. They could not have the better jobs. Because of that, most of them could not afford cars.

“Black people could not eat in white restaurants, or at white lunch counters,” Doswell added. “They could not stay in white hotels or motels. There were separate waiting rooms for whites and blacks in train stations and bus stations and even doctor’s offices. Blacks could not use white water fountains, or white rest rooms. . . On buses, blacks were required to sit in the back seats. They could not sit in front of white people, or beside white people. . . They were not allowed to sit in white churches.”

Doswell went on later in his speech four years ago to describe how positive social and cultural change had come to Rock Hill by 2007. Four years ago, for example, many of our area teachers, coaches, principals and school administrators, including school board members, were black. That trend continues today. (Maybe not a sufficient percentage number of our role models and professionals today are persons of color, but in Rock Hill and York County we’re getting there.) Our current police chief is black, as are many of our police officers and firefighters. And at Winthrop University, where I teach journalism and where for many decades the white flower maidens of the South (and only the white ones, mind you) came to learn the finer points of being homemakers and school teachers, the student body in 2011 is about 27 percent black. In fact, I had a class of about 10 students a few semesters ago, where I was the only white person in the room.

But again, all this progress toward positive social and cultural change for black people in Rock Hill didn’t happen over night.

Not by a long shot.

And to say the struggle, in 2011, for equal opportunity and a quality life for black people is over, is to miss the point completely.

David Boone kept helping folks despite KKK threats
There’s still work to be done, according to Brother David Boone, a member for the past 60 years of The Oratory in Rock Hill, a congregation of priests and brothers who serve the spiritual needs of York Countians.

Boone, 78, was smack dab in the middle of the touch and go civil rights struggle in Rock Hill and York County a half-century ago. In an era of the pinnacle of power of the White Citizens Council and the KKK, he befriended and supported folks in our black community at that time (and still does today), administering sacraments to them, working with them on marriage preparations and assisting with their religious education. Boone also helps out in a local soup kitchen which feeds 80-120 people a day.

“The young blacks of today cannot imagine why the blacks of those days (50 years ago) put up with so much and had so much against them,” he said.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s in Rock Hill, Boone, who had been threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, co-chaired a local effort for voter registration.

He is described in the 2002 book “The Good Town Does Well: Rock Hill, S.C., 1852-2002,” by Lynn Willoughby as “probably more respected by the black community at that time than any other white man.”

The soft-spoken, gentle Boone is self-deprecating when you ask him today about those KKK threats of long ago:

“Luckily, I was protected by a wall (The Oratory) that they couldn’t reach over,” he said. “And I never took phone calls. Someone always took my phone calls for me. Very rarely did I get a taste of their venom.”

Despite the huge strides that black folks have made over the past 50 years in Rock Hill, Boone says that by no means are things perfect. He notes, for example, that today’s unemployment rate for black males is way too high “and the drug trade is very rampant today in the black community because it’s a way of income, and unfortunately with drugs, comes violence…”

As to the local press coverage of half a century ago—namely coverage by the Evening Herald (now The Herald)—Boone gives the paper a grade of “B”:

“I wished they had been more on our side, but I understand. They would have lost their customers (white readers and advertisers) like mad.”

Boone hints that in some ways Rock Hill’s dominant local newspaper—its only local paper of that era (the Evening Herald)—was out of its comfort zone in trying to cover civil rights.

“They (the newspaper) would call us to their office in those days. Why didn’t they come to us in our locale and talk to us? . . . I remember going there two or three times to the newspaper office.

He attributes this distancing of newspaper from its sources to an element of distrust or perhaps uneasiness with the unknown or unfamiliar: “All their writers were white, and it could have been a combination of several things—fear, not knowing the right thing to do and not being sensitive to the people.”

To better understand and appreciate the Evening Herald’s coverage of those tumultuous years in Rock Hill, you have to hearken back to the Chicago native who had bought the paper in 1948. His name was Talbott Patrick, and the Evening Herald (today The Herald) would stay in the Patrick family till 1985 when it was sold to the News & Observer Co. of Raleigh, N.C. (In 1990, the paper was again sold—this time to the McClatchy Co., the second largest newspaper company in the U.S.)

Melford Wilson: Rock Hill’s hometown newspaper owner was one of a kind
Patrick, by all accounts, put out a pretty good community newspaper—one with a reputation for being more moderate and progressive than most newspapers of its size in South Carolina.

He was also a character, a cosmopolitanite, a savvy businessman and schmoozer, rubbing shoulders with bank presidents, wealthy elites and community leaders, but never a racist, according to Melford Wilson, 71, retired vice president for academic affairs at Winthrop University. Wilson, a resident of Rock Hill for 44 years, remembered “old man (Talbott) Patrick” as being “full of stories.”

“He had traveled everywhere and done everything,” said Wilson, who served on the Rock Hill City Council from 1978-1984. “We were two of the few people in Rock Hill who had ever been in Afghanistan. . . We sort of hit it off.

“Talbott Patrick wouldn’t have fit in as far as most places of the South. He was moderate and he was really a man of the world. He had been everywhere. . . He had some a..holes as reporters, and he loved to give the city hell, but he wasn’t racist.”

A similar portrait of Evening Herald owner Patrick, and the direction he set for his newspaper, emerges from a recent interview with his retired associate editor Marshall Doswell, who came on board at the newspaper in 1957 after having worked for the Associated Press in Chicago for seven years. (Doswell, a World War II veteran, would work at the Evening Herald for five and half years before stepping down to take a job at Springs where he stayed for another 25 years.)

At the Evening Herald, Doswell says the owner’s philosophy was to report the news but to do so in a way that did not inflame the public. “You have to stay a half step ahead of them (the public) and try to nudge public opinion along, he would say,” Doswell remembers. “Better to go that direction than to have a frontal assault.”

And so Rock Hill’s only local newspaper, which back then had a circulation of about 14,500 and had 14 people in its newsroom (all of them white), took a careful, measured course throughout those turbulent years of the late 1950s and early 1960s in Rock Hill.

“We did the best we could do to be non-inflammatory,” said Doswell. “We tried to play it straight down the middle. . . And I think we did it about right. Probably if we had it to do over again, I’d want us to take a stronger editorial stance than we did. But the community understood we were on the liberal side of the middle of the road . . . and we were not pushing it. Mr. Patrick said if we pushed too hard, we would wind up with what they had going on in Mississippi and Alabama, and we didn’t want that.”

With all the attention and accolades focused in recent years on the heroics in 1961 of the Friendship Nine, Doswell says folks shouldn’t also forget that many others helped pave the way for the bold actions of the students who sat in at the McCrory’s lunch counter.

He says the racial movement and protests for equality in Rock Hill started in the mid 1950s, for example, and culminated at that McCrory’s lunch counter.

“…the Friendship Nine event was important,” Doswell wrote in a letter to the author of this story. “Those young men had a sense of commitment and the courage to back that up by risking violent reprisal and then by refusal to take the easy way out. They chose jail instead of bail. They deserve a lot of credit for that.

“But I think it’s important to remember that the Friendship Nine event was the culmination of years of demonstrated courage, patience and persistence. There were earlier sit-down events and arrests. There were years of marches from Friendship Junior College to downtown Rock Hill and return.”

Doswell said the protestors would march from the college’s campus down Main Street and then to the Andrew Jackson Hotel. “Then, they’d go back to the campus. They did this day after day. . . It became a fairly common occurrence. Interspersed with that, you would see the KKK in their white regalia and with their burning crosses outside of town.”

He also recalls that there were years of a bus boycott in Rock Hill.

“Hundreds of young blacks and scores of adult black leaders made a contribution to the cause of tenacity, dignity and perseverance,” Doswell wrote. “So a lot of people should be recognized, including the white majority who slowly accepted important social change. They didn’t press for it, but they did accept it and they wanted no part of the violence and ugly slurs of some whites. Most whites understood that it was long past time for change. Their quite acceptance helped make it take place.”

Doswell also remembers that at the height of the sit-ins here, big media companies—the New York Times and the Associated Press—converged on Rock Hill.

“I remember telling a guy from the Times, ‘You ought to pay attention that this is a city of about 30 thousand people. About 300 of them are downtown. The rest of them are at their homes or at work…’”

By the late 1960s and on in to the early 1970s, when Melford Wilson had taken up residence in Rock Hill and began teaching at Winthrop, Rock Hill’s racial climate had improved. That happened in part because of the “excellent black and white leaders in Rock Hill who really put the good of the city above everything else,” said Wilson, who became the first chair of the Rock Hill Economic Development Corporation in the 1980s.

Wilson gives former Winthrop President Charlie Davis credit for making the campus, still all female in the 1960s, more diverse. “He wrote a letter to each one of the black females who were members of the two big honor societies in high school--one was the Beta Club and the other was the National Honor Society—inviting them to apply to Winthrop,” Wilson recalls. “We got outstanding black students. Nobody could say we were lowering standards or anything like that.”

To this day, according to Wilson, who teaches part time at Winthrop, what Davis started has carried over. “We have some of the best black students anywhere,” he said.

When those black students arrived at Winthrop, they found themselves living in a southern community that had already been through some growing pains of integration; the town by then had become gradually accustomed to assimilating people of all races.

Perhaps that accommodation stemmed partly from the fact that Rock Hill had never been the scene of the heated civil rights trauma that beset places like Birmingham or Selma or Philadelphia, Mississippi.

“There was not a hostility in Rock Hill (in the late 50s or early 60s),” Wilson remembers. “I had come here for family funerals and things like that and brought Momma around.

“One of the sayings people always said was: ‘If you want to know who a good man is, it’s somebody who blacks come to his funeral.’”

But why was Rock Hill generally spared the racial violence that rocked other towns in the South?

It might have had something to do with “there never being a strong plantation mentality around here,” Wilson opines. “The blacks who moved to town moved in from the North to work in the mills. . . And I don’t remember people in Rock Hill calling people by any derogatory terms. When I visited friends living in Sumter or Darlington or places like that, it was N this and N that. Here you just didn’t hear that.”

When Wilson served on the Rock Hill City Council, he also saw evidence of the city’s progressive, inclusive attitude. Despite the availability of federal money for public housing, some other towns in South Carolina declined to apply for it, because of the integration required for such housing.

But not Rock Hill.

“I think Rock Hill was forward thinking,” Wilson said. “It really was. If there was government money out there, Rock Hill didn’t let race stop us from applying for it. We applied for every damn penney we could get.”

Bessie Moody-Lawrence: “We need not to forget our history.”
One well-known and respected African-American Rock Hillian who was born in 1941 and grew up in a segregated society in the 1950s is Bessie Moody-Lawrence. She is a former public school teacher and retired education professor at Winthrop who served 16 years in the S.C. General Assembly representing York County District 49 as a Democrat.

Moody-Lawrence, whose daughter Leah is a member of the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees, remembers the separate water fountains for blacks and whites, the separate seating on buses, and going to the back of the line at stores.

And when she headed off from the bus station in Chester to school at S.C. State University, she remembers that she and her big trunk “packed with all my things” had to go to the back of the bus.

She credits groups like the Friendship Nine with changing the social and cultural landscape in America.

“The public accommodations came about because of the sit-ins,” said Moody-Lawrence, only the third black person to serve in S.C. House District 49 in the General Assembly. “Life changed because of that. Children today have to realize that it wasn’t so long ago that we didn’t have access to public accommodations. . . I lived as a child in a segregated society and into integration. But I’m not bitter. I think we need not to forget our history. We need to celebrate our history.”

W.T. "Dub" Massey: “We knew we were doing the right thing.”
And then there’s short (in stature) but big in heart Dub Massey, 68 today but barely 18 when he and his fellow Friendship Junior College students sat themselves down on those bar stools at McCrory’s Five & Dime Store (now the Old Town Bistro) on Rock Hill’s Main Street in February 1961.

Massey, after that historic sit-in and jailing, would be drafted into the U.S. Army. Then he’d earn his bachelor’s degree from Johnson C. Smith University and would pick up a master’s in counseling and education specialty degree in administration from Winthrop.

Married to the former Joyce Goode for the past 43 years, Dub retired as a guidance counselor at York Comprehensive High School in 1995 after 28 years working in S.C. public schools and two years of service in the military.

Today, you’ll find the 2004-heart-attack survivor father of two children still at it (as an instructional assistant) with kids at Hunter Street Elementary School in York.

The double-bypass open-heart surgery survivor keeps busy, too, with his duties as associate minister at Langrum Branch Baptist Church in York.

But flash back briefly to the early 1960s. A passage in Lynn Willoughby’s book “The Good Town Does Well: Rock Hill, S.C., 1852-2002” recounts how Massey seems to have had a close encounter with death—all for the sake of the civil rights struggle:

“…once when Dub Massey led ten people to sit at a lunch counter, the owner exploded in rage,” Willoughby writes. “‘You better get out of my place. This is my livelihood, and you’re destroying my family,’ he yelled at them. Massey replied that they were not there to destroy him, only to give him some business and if he would just serve them, there would not have to be any conflict. The white man grabbed a pistol and held it to Massey’s temple.

“‘If you don’t leave, I’m going to blow your brains out,’ he told him. Massey replied respectfully that they were not leaving, at which time the white man called for somebody to ‘get the cops, get the police. Get ‘em out of here before I kill ‘em all.’”

Massey says today that the event chronicled in Willoughby’s book did indeed happen but not at McCrory’s. He thinks it occurred across the street, either at what was then Smith’s Drugs or Tollison and Neal.

“We did these sit-ins daily. We came down here several times a week,” he said, recalling that the students with him that particular day were all young ladies from Friendship College.

So Massey has a gun to his head. The white racist manager or owner has his finger on the trigger. The man with the gun is angry, fidgety.

Was little Dub Massey afraid?

“I didn’t think about fear,” said Massey, interviewed recently for this story at a booth in the Old Town Bistro (formerly McCrory’s) just a few feet from a bar stool that has his name engraved on the back of it. “I thought about my responsibility as a line leader. I was responsible for them (the young women). My intent was to make him back off. . . We came there to eat. But at a certain point—it might have been in about 15 minutes--I said, ‘Let’s go.’”

The ordained Baptist minster says young blacks of today (2011) aren’t informed about what civil rights struggles occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It’s as if, he says, that youngsters think their rights occurred through osmosis.

“To them, progress would be made racially without anything that we did in the past,” he said. “That’s pretty much their opinion. I say that because I work with them. I know their thinking. . . They know but it really doesn’t matter. . . Whatever will happen will happen. They have no clue about the sacrifices that were made. . . The only things they’re concerned about is, just like my son, his automobile and his mode of transportation. They’re just out of the loop completely.”

Larry Timbs is an associate professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Recent blog post published in local newspaper

Got an article published in yesterday's edition of The (Rock Hill) Herald.

Click here to read it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Barack Obama shows his statesmanship in Tucson

Okay, full disclosure, folks.

I did not vote for Barack Obama for president.

I went with John McCain.

But right now, I believe America's in good hands because we have Mr. Obama as our leader.

I heard and saw his speech last night that he gave honoring the victims and survivors of the recent tragedy in Tucson, Ariz.

I always knew Barack Obama was a gifted orator, but his remarks last night had the 14,000 people in the live audience at the University of Arizona in tears more than once.

Were I on his staff, I'd walk through fire for the man.

If you missed his speech last night, turn up your sound here and have a listen and look at this link.

Historic, emotional and straight from the heart and intellect of a man who knows, as he put it, that "all our hearts are broken."

Mid-way through his speech, he had this to say about the Arizona congresswoman shot through the head and who is now battling for her life in the intensive care unit of a Tucson hospital:

"I have come from the medical center just a mile from here where our friend fights courageously to recover even as we speak. And I want to tell you: her husband Mark is here and he allows me to share this with you. Right after we went to visit...Gabby opened her eyes for the first time. Gabby opened her eyes for the first time. Gabby opened her eyes. So I can tell you she knows we are here. She knows we love her, and she knows we are rooting for her throughout what undoubtedly is going to be a difficult journey. We are there for her."

Take in President Obama's entire speech at this link.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Encounter with journalistic ethics

From time to time, I'm asked to share with my students or colleagues situations I've been in that required me to exercise good judgment with regard to the ethics of journalism.

Here's one such situation that came to mind yesterday when I looked back (okay, way, way back) on my early years working professionally in community journalism.

This happened to me in 1979 or 1980. Can’t remember the exact year but one of those, I believe.

I was general manager/editor of a twice-a-week 8K-circulation community newspaper in rural south-central Illinois.

I had heard about a physician in the local community who faithfully and rigorously jogged every day for exercise. He was pretty well known and respected, as I recall, and seemed to be in excellent health. He regularly ran marathons (26+ miles).

What really got my attention as a journalist/editor was when this same physician suddenly had a massive heart attack. In those days, as I recall, it was believed that someone who ran marathons was immune to having a heart attack.

So, again, my journalistic antenna went up when this well-known paragon of fitness physician had to transported by ambulance to St. Louis for life saving heart surgery.

He survived the surgery and returned a few weeks later to his practice in the town where we circulated our newspaper.

I called him and asked if he would consent to being interviewed about what he had been through, and explained to him that my story angle would be that he had proven the exception to the commonly held belief that you-can’t-have-a-heart-attack-if-you-run-a-marathon.

He agreed to talking with me for the record.

After I had written my story and a day or so before we went to press, he called me and asked politely if he could review the story before it was published.

Trying to contain my frustration, I politely explained that we had a firm policy at the paper again pre-publication review and that he had nothing to worry about. I assured him that I would be accurate and ethical and that the story would generally be an upbeat piece about how he had survived a heart attack.

But he still insisted on reviewing my story before it was published.

Again, I resisted, but again he pressed me for giving him the chance to look over what I had written.

“You know, Larry,” I agreed to talk to you when you contacted me. “Seems like you could extend this one courtesy to me,” he said. “If not, I won’t ever have anything to do with your newspaper again.”

I told him I’d consider his request.

You know what?

After a sleepless night, I ended up the next morning inviting him to come to my office to read the story before I submitted it for publication.

The guy came. I handed him the story. He retreated to my office, spent about 15 minutes in there with the story and exited with a smile and a handshake. He thanked me for doing a very good job.

I recall that he changed only one minor word of what I had written.

In retrospect, yes, I had violated our paper’s prohibition against pre-publication review.

But I had also gained.

I had cultivated and maintained a contact with an excellent source of information in our community--one that the newspaper would rely upon many times in the future, as it turned out.

Bottom line: In a small community, you as an editor or journalist should try never to burn a bridge or alienate a valuable source.

Even if it means you have to adjust your ethics.