"The Fight Was Instilled in Us": High School Activism and the Civil Rights Movement in Charleston

By Hale, Jon | South Carolina Historical Magazine, January 2013 | Go to article overview

"The Fight Was Instilled in Us": High School Activism and the Civil Rights Movement in Charleston


Hale, Jon, South Carolina Historical Magazine


"I REMEMBER PEOPLE STANDING AND STARING AT US LIKE WE were trouble makers and were trying to upset Charleston/' Harvey Gantt, a graduate of Burke High School in Charleston, recalled of the student-led sit-in on April 1,1960. "We at least got the attention of the community. We were feeling young and gifted and ready to tear down a broken social system. We felt like we were pioneers that day," Gantt said.1 Gantt was one of twenty-four Burke High School students who marched to S. H. Kress & Co., a segregated five-and-dime store on King Street in downtown Charleston. The students occupied nearly one-half of the lunch-counter seats, humming, singing freedom songs, and reciting prayers. The students maintained their composure as the manager of the store asked them to leave, white patrons cleared the premises, and bystanders circulated rumors of a bomb threat. Police arrested the students, charged them with trespassing, and put them in jail.2 By examining the effort to desegregate public facilities through the lens of the first sit-in in Charleston, this article will illustrate how a small, committed group of local high school students and teachers played an integral, though overlooked, role in the civil rights movement.

The above photograph of the Burke High School protesters was published in the Charleston News and Courier the day after the sit-in. This image contradicts civil rights movement historiography and collective memory, which typically limit student activism to college campuses. Historians and the American public often focus on the sit-ins of 1960, the Freedom Rides in 1961, the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962, and the Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign of 1964, all of which emanated from institutions of higher education.3 When scholars discuss high school student activism, analysis is frequently cast in disparaging or paternalistic terms. "The greatest weakness of student protest is that it is conducted by students," quips Gerard J. DeGroot. "They are, almost by definition, young, reckless and prone to immaturity," he writes.4 As Vanessa Siddle Walker reasons in relation to the Caswell County Public Schools in North Carolina, students "are the ones around whom the entire story revolves, but they are not the significant players in the story." Students, rather, are the "recipients."5

In fact, high school students have been significant "players in the story. " Students led a walkout at R. R. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, in 1950, which served as the impetus for legal challenges that resulted in the Brown v. Board of Education decision four years later.6 Claudette Colvin, a student at Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat on the bus weeks before Rosa Parks in 19557 Demanding better facilities, over five hundred students walked out of Jim Hill and Lanier High Schools in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963, just months prior to the organization of the Mississippi Freedom Summer project, the single largest voter registration campaign of the movement.8 By the late 1960s, these and other examples of dissent among high school students, which were a source of significant consternation for administrators and educators at the secondary level, had prompted urgent national discourse among principals, teachers, and education scholars. In response, the National Association of Secondary Principals set out to investigate systematically the pervasiveness, depth, and scope of student protest.9 The association reported in March 1969 that 59 percent of high schools and 56 percent of junior high schools had experienced some form of student unrest, dissent, or protest.10 The "students' rights movement" that emerged from this milieu constituted, among other things, a legal struggle to secure the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and due process for disciplinary action in schools.11

An examination of the context of the student protest at the S. …

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