In the year of 1960-1961, I was a senior attending a Black Methodist College (Wiley) in Marshall, Texas. During this time, the fight for civil and constitutional rights for Black Americans was in full force. I would be remiss not to mention that Wiley College is the birth place of the movie The Great Debaters starring Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Forrest Whittaker who gave brilliant and heart-warming performances. I also give special thanks to Oprah Winfrey for her financial support to highlight the accomplishments of the courageous young men and women who persevered with a desire to achieve greatness.
In America then, college students were being asked to show their willingness to participate in a movement that would perhaps improve the quality of life for all who dared to dream the American dream. I, along with six other willing but apprehensive students, received my training and directives from a well-established fraternal organization (Alpha Phi Omega Inc.) We were told where, when, what time, how to dress, and what to expect during our first Sit-In demonstration.
I will never forget the feeling of oppression when we were told we may be yelled at, called niggers or roughed-up by the police. However, dressed in what we called “Sunday clothes” I, along with the others, listened carefully to the very detailed instructions, “Always look forward, don’t raise your voice or use profanity, and remain calm and polite under all circumstances.”Leaving for Walgreens Drug Store, we were reminded to order coffee and when service was denied we should remain quiet and seated until the leader of the group had made a decision for us to leave. We entered Walgreens bravely, walking one behind the other and sat at the counter in seats reserved for whites only. Suddenly, as expected, we were the center of attention, like caged animals being watched for erratic movement.
Upon ordering coffee, service was quickly denied and we were told to leave. In fact, we were told several times to leave, but we held steadfast to our orders to sit until we felt we had made a statement without words. Sitting at the counter wondering how the sit-in would end felt like an eternity.
After four decades, I can only remember the names of two individuals who shared this experience with me: Herman Ferlough and John “Doc” Coss. But I will always remember the heart-wrenching sound of pistols being cocked by police officers insisting that we leave. Being careful to move slowly out of the door with no sudden moves, I wondered how long black Americans would have to fight to be accepted in the one nation under God that claims to give liberty and justice to all.
Times back then were difficult for black people; educated and non-educated had to fight for the simplest level of justice, equality and respect. That day, only six of the seven who participated in the Walgreens sit-in went to jail and remained in holding until the next day. I have yet to find out why I was not taken to jail like my classmates. Yes, that was then, when people were sacrificing their lives for justice like Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner who were brutally murdered in Mississippi as they worked to assist African Americans execute their constitutional voting privilege. Although our sacrifice was small in comparison to many, it was very significant during the struggle back then.
Now, times have changed for the better as a result of the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other pioneers. Now, we have a newly elected President, Mr. Obama, who happens to be black. Unlike then, now, Americans can be proud to live in this country and truthfully say that we are indeed making tremendous strides to be one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all. Thanks to God that he allowed me to live long enough to see, cherish, enjoy and appreciate THE NOW!