The Movement Lives: Johnson C. Smith University Students Follow in the Footsteps of Civil Rights Activists

Article excerpt

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On the night of Feb. 8, 1960, J. Charles Jones, then a student of religion and psychology at Johnson C. Smith University, knew instinctively what it was he needed to do for his generation.

He first met with a handful of other classmates and friends, letting them know what he had just learned on the radio--other Black students in neighboring Greensboro, N.C. had begun staging lunch counter sit-ins at the five and dime. The next day, Jones told them, he planned to do the same. Dressed in his "Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes," and with some "sweet water" dabbed under his arms, an anxious but determined Jones was planning to make his way alone to Woolworth's in downtown Charlotte, N.C. He was going to order a meal and integrate the all-White lunch counter. But before he stepped off the campus and into the flay, nearly 300 Smith students turned out to join Jones in what was the beginning of a quiet riot and boycott that soon shut down Charlotte's businesses, and in just short of a year, pried them open to Black patrons.

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"All I want is to come in and place my order and be served and leave a tip if I feel like it," the 22-year-old activist told a Charlotte newspaper reporter who asked Jones why he and the other Black students were leading the civil rights demonstration. But Jones, now 75, says the zeal and fight he took with him to Woolworth's day after day weren't just about the barriers thrown up by Southern lunch counters or the White people who owned them. Each time he sat down without being served at similar segregated lunch counters in Rock Hill, S.C., Tallahassee, Fla., or Albany, Ga., or got arrested and pressed into hard labor on chain gangs as a young Freedom Rider, Jones kept going by unwrapping the memories of his people. While in the belly of the racially charged South, where he narrowly escaped the Klan, Jones says he felt the will of "slaves who were plucked out of the continent." He conjured the endearing words of a beloved grandmother reminding him, "You God's child, you ain't no slave" and he remembered the debt he owed to the line of strivers, educated and moral people that he came from.

Telling West side stories

Jones, an emphatic Howard University-trained attorney, with an ever-ready rhythm and rhyme, and nimble recollections, was one of the faces and voices city visitors to the 2012 Democratic National Convention saw and heard when they turned on local media. His was among the stories Johnson C. Smith students told of life and residents in Charlotte's historic West End community. The student-led social media and online project titled RUN DNC 2012 is also serving as a platform for the campus and community to discuss issues and experiences that matter to them, says Laurie Porter, professor of mass media communications, who initiated the project with visiting political science professor LaTonya Williams.

In addition to Jones, students also interviewed Harry Webb, another Johnson C. Smith alumnus, about popular West End haunts from the 1950s. And in another video, university cheerleader Jockuela Ballard posted a video about growing up in foster care. Ballard was adopted at age 20 by her cheerleading coach and recently decided to go public with her story.

"The area is rich in character, but the stories of the people who live there don't always make the news. Now they're going public," says Porter. The project, which launched in March, is also intended to be a resource for "improving the democratic process and civic engagement with the sharing of the stories," Porter adds.

Williams added a voter registration drive to the project in a "Rock the Polls" week in early April. The event helped students learn about the political process and ways to get involved. "The site is interactive and fully integrated with social media, which makes it easy for people to learn about the political process and get involved," says Williams. …

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