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Oral history interview with Ralph Johns by Eugene Pfaff
January 17, 1979
Ralph Johns (1916-1997), a Greensboro storeowner, was one of the first whites to hold office as vice president of the local NAACP chapter in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Eugene E Pfaff
In this transcript of a January 17, 1979, oral history interview conducted by Eugene Pfaff with Ralph Johns, Johns discusses his role in initiating the February 1, 1960, sit-in and his experiences during the following months of demonstrations. He provides his opinion civil rights leaders, race in America, and the role of Greensboro in the civil rights movement.
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Oral history interview with Ralph Johns by Eugene Pfaff
[Note: the following represents a series of questions written by Eugene E. Pfaff, Jr. and sent to Ralph Johns, who in turn wrote answers to them and then read his answers aloud on tape]
This tape is being made on January 17, 1979 in Los Angeles. It is made for the department of Oral History of the Greensboro Public Library. This is an interview with Ralph Johns, whose actions in the early forties eventually led to the civil rights movement in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the sixties, spearheading the national sit-ins. There are twenty-one questions and answers.
Question one is: What factors or circumstances resulted in the test of segregation being made in February 1960? And why in Greensboro? And why was Woolworth's chosen as the target?
Back in the late forties, I would go to Woolworth and Kress's to eat lunch, and I couldn't understand why I could sit down and eat, and yet the blacks had to stand up or take their food and leave. Here, in the same place that they could go to all of the counters and buy, and yet be denied at the lunch counters. I would go to the S&W or Mayfair Cafeterias and watch many of my black friends walk by the window where I sat eating, and yet they could not enjoy the same privilege as an American, many who had fought for democracy in the war.
My conscience bothered me, and it broke my heart to see this indignity heaped on a human being of another color than white. So from 1949 until 1960, I approached black salespersons who worked in my store and students from A&T [North Carolina A&T State] University to go to those businesses and break the law and try to get served. I cannot speak for the other cities, but I lived in Greensboro and it was alien to my way of life, and I decided to do something about this wrong. [Bob] “Stonewall” Jackson, an A&T football star and later New York Giants professional, was the first that I had asked in 1948 and 1949.
I told him “Let's go to the S&W Cafeteria and have lunch together.”
He said, “Man, are you crazy? You want me to go get thrown in jail?”
I said, “Yes. It was time someone should show some guts to open up these places to eat for all blacks.”
There were so many more years after year. Ira Kelly, Kathy[?] Garrison, Turner Coggins, Dave Price, Martin Luther, Ed Stradford. For eleven years, I tried to get students and members of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] to break their segregated barriers. I was vice president of the [local chapter of the] NAACP a number of years, and week after week, I would bring this subject up to the members. They felt it was too radical then.
Woolworth happened to be the target because I chose it, and after eleven years—1949 to 1960—I finally approached a student who was a freshman at A&T University in my store buying shoes.
I told him what I told others. “Joe McNeil, you got any guts?”
“What do you mean?” he asked. This was in December 1959.
Then I told him to get me about four students to go to Woolworth's. I would give them money to buy at different counters and get a receipt for everything they bought, and then go to the lunch counter and sit down to get something to eat. I told him that he would be told by the waitress that they don't serve Negroes—of course, the word “Negro” [was] used, not blacks then. Then I told him to call her a liar, that Woolworth's does serve Negroes, that he was served on four counters and he had the receipts to prove it. Then I told him that, naturally, she would call the manager, and he would try to evict them or call the police. But I said, if he does, then call me on the phone and I would call Jo Spivey of the Greensboro Record to send a reporter and photographer on the scene at once.
Well, Joe McNeil did not come back to my store. Dorothy Graves, who worked as a clerk in my store, said, “He's like all the rest you talked to. He ain't coming back.”
But Joe did come back, February 1, 1960, with three more freshman: Ezell Blair, Franklin McCain, and David Richmond. And they said, “We are here, Cuzzin,'” a nickname used by me in my many articles. Dorothy, standing there, yelled, “Praise the Lord!”
For one hour, in the back of my store, I planned strategy, telling them what to do, and gave them money to use. And I—and [told them] if trouble started, to call me on the phone. That day was the beginning of the sit-ins that swept America and flowed over into Africa.
What was the status of the law regarding serving blacks at eating establishments?
The North Carolina law was no blacks could be seated with whites in any eating establishment or place of entertainment, or use the same toilet or drinking facilities.
What was the goal of the students—national desegregation or strictly local? And did you or the demonstrators realize that it would spark a nationwide protest movement? Also, what degree of organization and planning went into the Woolworth sit-ins, and what was your input into these plans? Was it their or your goal for voluntary service or a change in the law?
The goal was local desegregation, but after three days, the cry was national. It took me eleven years to get the move to jell. My input in this movement was one of many other facets—slums, ghettoes; integrated employment; eliminating outhouses [and] “white” and “colored” signs; lighting, playgrounds, and anything that was discriminatory; and aiding poor blacks. All of this was my idea, and these four students, at my instigation and counseling, provided the breakthrough that in one to thirty days started a chain reaction, a brotherhood of young and old, black and white, high schools and colleges, a togetherness of men, women and children to wipe out the stigma of color discrimination.
What was your involvement in trying to test desegregation in Greensboro prior to the Woolworth sit-in? How did you become involved in civil rights, and why did you join the NAACP? How did you meet the four demonstrators and why did they come to you? What was your role in counseling the students who first sat-in at Woolworth's? And what did you advise them to say and do? What was your continuing role during the subsequent course of events? And did you post bail for any of the demonstrators, and, if so, to what figure did this amount?
I got involved in trying to desegregate in Greensboro by going to black baseball games in 1948, and [I] sat with blacks—A&T basketball games, I was trusted and loved because—by many blacks. I also was looked upon by some of the so-called black leaders in politics and preachers as very radical with my ideas. I joined the NAACP in 1948 [and] became vice president in 1951 for many years.
It all began when I was invited to Reverend [Julius] Douglas' old [St. James] Presbyterian Church in the basement at night by a few black friends. That was when I was asked, about a week later, after I spoke out some of my ideas on what to do about slums and outhouses. I was signed up as a member, the first so-called white in the South to hold office in the NAACP, and [I] became a life member. This was all to lead up to time and time again, to get the NAACP to make a test case out of Woolworth's.
Finally, Dr. George Simkins, whom I signed up to the NAACP after he was arrested for trying to play golf at Gillespie [Park Golf Course], he said, “Ralph, I'm tired [of] hearing you want to start something at Woolworth's,” and he laughed. “Go ahead, and the NAACP will back it up.” George owed me a lot, for I nominated him to be president of the NAACP. I was offered the presidency, but I turned it down. George Simpkins is still president to this day, and top leader in the great black political bloc vote.
I did post some bail later, in the  cafeteria movement where Jesse Jackson got his start as a civil rights leader. Bob Patterson and hundreds of others were thrown in jail then. I cannot quote the exact figure in getting some of my black friends out of jail.
What is your assessment of the reaction of the news media—local newspapers, national press, national and local television and radio—the city administration, the A&T college faculty and administration, the Greensboro Police Department, and the general population of Greensboro and Guilford County?
The news media was very liberal and honest in the reporting of these sit-ins. Their thinking was very liberal, and it was of great help to those of us who planned day to day. I kept in touch with Jo Spivey to let her know what would happen next. The local press sent out news, and national press and television gave it the push to grow as fast as it did. I did not envision this until three days later—realized this was big, a historical revolution that would make the world sit up and take notice.
Later, Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, at Dr. Simkins' house one night, when told that I had started the sit-ins, said to me, “We can't thank you enough for what you have done, for we needed this movement to help us in Alabama to get started on our civil rights movement.”
As far as the police was concerned, under these conditions, many reluctantly tried to keep law and order. But there were still were a few die-hards who didn't like what was happening and were not diplomatic.
Detective [William] Jackson had a tough job, and in Greensboro, with feelings at a high pitch and under the circumstances, [he] tried hard to keep things under control, in spite of KKK [Ku Klux Klan] and young segregationist agitation, which came in many forms of threats, beatings, taunts, [and] insults. Many decent people felt that the students had a right, but did not dare speak openly.
What was the attitude of the A&T student body and the general mood on the campus?
A&T and the student body was very much together in a cohesive action. Day after day, the crowds became bigger, more tension [built up], more cities joined, [and] more colleges.
What were the specific events concerning the origin and outcome of the Woolworth sit-ins? Were you afraid that there would be violence? Given the fact that so many people were involved in such an emotional issue, why do you think that there was not more violence than there was? And do you attribute this to the way the police handled the situation under Chief Paul Calhoun, the leaders of the demonstrations, the general population, the presence of national news media? All of these or none of these?
I called Woolworth's New York office. I sent them letters signed by the original four sit-inners, and I used a fictitious name of one David Price, who a number of years ago I had asked to go to Woolworth's in the fifties.
Many times I felt guilty for starting this movement. What if one of my friends were killed—mob violence and killings? Yes, I had many second thoughts about me and my family being hurt or killed.
When the first few days of the movement passed by, I had told the original four that no matter what, repeat the Lord's Prayer, turn your cheeks, don't fight back. Let the public see that we were nonviolent. Let the publicity be good for us and bad for the hoodlums, and then we would win public sympathy and the press on our side. Because of this, and the police seeing the way that the [black] students and white students from Woman's College conducted themselves, and the obscenities and vulgarities and cruelties of the white hate groups, [our good behavior] start winning us friends to the movement. Chief Paul Calhoun was very diplomatic, and I worked with [him] behind the scenes, reporting any police brutality.
What sort of training was necessary for the protestors, that is, to avoid anger at taunts, cigarettes being crushed out in their faces and scalps, blows, being pulled off stools, and so forth?
Meetings were held, cell movements, training by CORE and NAACP to teach and cope with any situation that would be determined—detrimental to the movement. It was becoming very unbearable at Kress' and Woolworth's—white hate groups drink—dunking—dumping catsup or mustard on some of the students, insulting white students, calling them “nigger-lovers,” [and saying,] “We'll get you tonight.” Pushing, punching, all the aggravations bordering on assault and threats. White Councils and KKK started a sit-in reverse by sitting in the stools and chairs. Woolworth's and Kress' were losing a fortune.
What evidence of friction and potential violence did you observe and what steps, if any, were taken by the authorities to avert it? Were the authorities and the police objective, or were their sympathies clearly with the segregationists? How effectively did they protect the demonstrators and at preventing violence? How effective were the members of the black community in providing leadership called for in Mayor [George] Roach's statement of official city policy? What about the white leaders? How much control did these leaders exert?
Each day of the sit-ins, tension and friction grew. [Then there was] the big march downtown from A&T University, with many of the preachers, teachers, and older groups joining. As they would march by my store, they would all acknowledge me. I told them as they went by to turn their cheeks and say the Lord's Prayer.
In the middle of the street were six segregationists, white segregationist troublemakers, who insulted them as they marched by, “Niggers, go back to Africa,” “Hey, you black baboon bastard.”
I yelled out to the whites, “They, the blacks, are turning their cheeks, but I won't. Come on, I'll take any one of you on.”
I walked out in the middle of the street, and they started running, yelling, “Nigger-lovin' son-of-a-bitch.”
Each day, I was confronted by antagonism from my neighbors in business, smart remarks and taunts.
The police kept hands-off, even when buckets of water were dumped on the heads of the marchers from the King Cotton Hotel, as well as debris. Some of the police sympathies were with the blacks, but most didn't like this movement and were sometimes overly-protective of the white hate groups. Mayor Roach played it safe, trying not to agonize the white elements. Mr. [Edward] Zane was more open; he came to some of the meetings to resolve some of the problems. There were no white leaders who wanted to stick their necks out, only tokenism.
Were you afraid that there would be violence? What were your thoughts concerning your own personal safety, and what steps did you take to protect yourself? What sort of reaction was there to the sit-ins from racial hate groups? Were you ever personally attacked and/or threatened or beaten by six men in the Gridiron Grill? Or threatening phone calls, or obscene letters, or bomb threats, or ostracism in the community?
Yes, I was afraid that there would be violence. Blacks were afraid to come downtown at nights because of white gangs who would attack them. Eggs were thrown at my window of my store. Rocks [were] thrown at me as whites drove by my store. Each day the Duke Power truck drove by and insults poured out at me. I yelled back, “Come on, I'll take any one of you.” Across the street from my store was a KKK hangout. They watched my store daily. The head of the KKK, Reverend [George] Dorsett, called me up and insulted and threatened me.
I kept saying to him, “Man was made in God's image and not his color. I forgive you.” No matter how he taunted me, I kept saying, “I forgive you.”
One time, at the height of the march, a man in the middle of the street, with others of his friends standing by, started yelling, “Ralph Johns, you nigger-loving bastard,” and threatening gestures.
The blacks who were marching stopped and passed the word to each other, “Ralph Johns is in trouble.”
James Farmer, president of CORE [Congress of Racial Equality], and George Simkins, and dozens of other blacks came by my side and asked me if I was all right. I told them not to worry, I could handle this guy.
Finally, police and friends persuaded the man to leave. A week later this man apologized saying he was very drunk.
I met with James Farmer of CORE and a group of—I told them, “Let's make a large cross and get one of our big football players to carry the cross, leading the march, and [put] a sign on the cross saying, 'Jesus Christ, crucified daily.'”
Many days and nights I got calls and threats. Yes, I was fearful, but angry. I was not worried about myself, but about my wife and children. I never carried a gun. I didn't want to, even though my friends told me I was crazy not to carry one. I told them, “Violence breeds violence.” I had been personally confronted and attacked numerous times. I never knew when I was going to be jumped on by a gang.
As I walked by the Gridiron Cafe, a voice inside yelled at me, “Hey, Ralph Johns, you nigger-lover.” I went in and I told the party, “Jesus was a nigger-lover, too.”
Then he swung at me, and then I hit him a few times, cutting his face. Others started jumping me. The man behind the bar had a butcher knife in his hands. There was blood on my shirt from the person I had hit. I finally got out, and I went to my store and took off the bloody shirt and put on a new one. A few minutes later, some white friends who were in the Gridiron Cafe, came to my store and shook my hands and said they were glad I hit the owner, who they said was a smart guy anyway.
Yes, over a period of years I had about twenty-seven bomb threats, one attempted cross-burning, [and] obscene letters, which I gave to the FBI. I was ostracized in the VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars], where I finally was forced to resign as commander. I was not allowed to golf any more at the two golf courses I played on. In the cafeterias, I would be subject to snide and insulting remarks.
Was it you who called Jo Spivey of the Greensboro Record and Dr. George Simkins of the Greensboro chapter of the NAACP on February 1, 1960? What is your assessment of the support given by local black organizations, especially the local chapter of the NAACP?
Yes, it was I who told Jo Spivey what the plans were and when it happened. I called her to send news reporters. And Jack Moebes, the Record photographer, went to Woolworth's that afternoon to took pictures of what was the beginning of the sit-ins at the Woolworth Five and Ten.
George Simkins knew what I was trying to do, but [he] did not know that it had started until I phoned him and said, “George, the four A&T students are up at Woolworth and sitting at the lunch counters trying to get something to eat. The manager is trying to throw them out. They called me and I told them to sit there. I've already called Jo Spivey, and the Record has sent news reporters on the scene.” I said, “George, if they get thrown in jail, I want to go bail and the NAACP must fight their case.”
George replied, with a laugh, “Yep, we'll back it up. You finally did it, huh?”
I told him that since I was on the executive board of the NAACP, I would keep him posted. Local black organizations took a while to participate.
It was the second day and twenty students went to Woolworth's. Ezell Blair [Jr.] was to keep in touch with me and meet with me at the store and notify me of happenings as we planned strategy. Dorothy Graves, my sales clerk, went to Woolworth's daily to keep tabs. I went up the second day and I bought some items. And as I walked by the students, I nodded my head, saying, “Good luck,” and left.
The third day, Winston-Salem College and North Carolina [Central] College at Durham, North Carolina, got into the act at their cities. That was when each day we gained momentum—Orangeburg, South Carolina, and the stockade debacle of fire hoses [being turned] on those arrested, and [then the protestors being] placed in the stockade in freezing weather.
On the third day, hundreds of students came to Woolworth's and overflowed into Kress. I went amongst them and told them to buy popcorn and go to the lunch counters and eat the popcorn there. They did. They jumped over the railings when they couldn't get by those who would prevent them.
What instructions did you give the other protestors that joined the original four as the sit-ins continued? What was the final number of participants, white and blacks, in the Woolworth desegregation effort?
Hundreds and hundreds of students from A&T University, Bennett College, Woman's College [of the] University of North Carolina, [and] Dudley High School joined the movement. And about fifty rabble-rousing whites were always trying to grab seats before blacks and using this strategy. There was some scuffling, a few fights and arrests. Within thirty to sixty days, hundreds of colleges north and west, east and south, joined in boycotting Woolworth's, Kress, and other segregated businesses throughout the country. Support from thousands upon thousands came through.
A committee was formed at A&T College, and I knew what was going on daily. I listened in on a few meetings, but control was taken over by others. Now and then I would advise or counsel. I would coordinate plans to see that the NAACP was in close contact in case of emergency needs. Finally, participation all over America numbered in the hundreds of thousands. In Greensboro, it culminated into as high as three or four thousand.
What was the degree of violence from white hecklers? What was the effect of their holding the seats for white patrons? Could you describe the degree of tension in the situation, and how did it make itself felt?
Violence from white hecklers was kept at a minimum, due to the constant watching over by police and detectives of Greensboro. Whites took turns about subbing for one another in seating. Blacks would scuffle now and then to beat the white hecklers to seats. Blacks would bring books and homework while sitting and studying, while one white dumped sugar on a black student's head.
Tension was very high. A fake bomb phone call was made and the evacuation was ordered [of the Woolworth's store]. Each day I would go to Woolworth or Kress, and I would see people like Dorsett of the KKK and other white segregationists. A few times I was asked, “Was I involved?” I was insulted many times. I ignored them and I walked away from them.
I neglected my business time and time again to be in touch with what was happening. George Simkins and I went there a few times. Yes, there was many times of tensions and flare-ups. I was afraid that some innocent person might get killed. One white heckler threw acid on the clothes of one black student. A white person chased the heckler and caught him, and police took him into custody. Many photos [were taken] showing a white hecklers in action at Woolworth's—
What aid did you receive from outside civil rights organizations, like the national office of the NAACP or CORE? Was there any national or local support from other public or private organizations, from private citizens? Was there any pressure to desist from the sit-ins from any of these same sources?
Outside civil right groups came in. CORE sent its ace troubleshooter, Mr. [Gordon] Carey, to set up cell orientation meetings at black churches. The NAACP had nightly executive meetings which I attended.
Private citizens who helped were few. The mayor's committee, by Mayor George Roach, were made up of timid persons who patronized. Mr. Zane, to my knowledge, was the only white I knew who was sincere and tried to resolve this problem.
The newspapers and news media and television helped us a lot. Money from outside sources was little. Poor blacks in Greensboro contributed collections at Sunday church.
When and by whom was the decision made to include S.H. Kress & Company, and was it the plan to desegregate all of the lunch counters and stores in Greensboro? What was the scope of the demonstrations? How did broadening it to other stores affect the demonstration, the mood of the demonstrators, and the reaction of those opposed to the demonstrations? How did the inclusion of white girls in the demonstrations heighten the emotional volatility of the situation? And was there concern for their safety and that of children involved in the demonstrations?
The decision to include Kress in the movement was discussed by the original four sit-inners, and I, and Simkins. And I felt that we should go into Kress and not pick on Woolworth only, since Kress had the same set-up for eating. The plan was Woolworth, but a day or so later was to include Kress. The general idea was to desegregate Woolworth's only. But each day, with ideas beginning to flow and being exchanged, the boycotting of both, plus others nationally, broadening it to other stores, eventually gave the opportunity to a nationwide student movement—and participation by liberal movie actors, humanitarians, liberal politicians, and whites to help by action, speaking out, and [giving] money.
Southern white segregation groups started activating itself by threats, night action, assaults, cross-burnings. So-called “police of the South” were for law and order without justice. Their sympathies were with the White Councils.
White girl students who joined the movement in Greensboro were intimidated, insulted, and threatened. Some who came a day or two quit because of fear and threats. Very few stayed. But little by little, they became more courageous as white men students joined. Some churches—
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—as white men students joined. Some churches reacted, but the majority of white churches in Greensboro were silent.
Blacks were concerned over the safety of white and black women and children. The whites were fearful of bloodshed, fires and bombings, and killings.
KKK became more active in marching downtown in white robes and khaki uniforms with big flashlights. Some stood in front of my store and walked in and stared at me, and then they walked out.
Moods were very bad. Many blacks were getting tired of being pushed around. One night Dr. Simkins and I walked to Jefferson Square, where crowds were milling about. A couple of whites insulted a black, and I told them that this young black's father had died in the war for democracy. And go ahead and insult me, I wouldn't turn my cheek. George pulled me away, and he said, “Cool it, man.”
How important in the success of the sit-ins was the presence of national radio, television, and newspaper representatives?
The sit-ins would not have been successful had it not been for the coverage and presence of national radio, television, and newspaper representation. They told it with no holds barred. Blacks were beautiful, and those whites who hated and hurt blacks were embarrassing and humiliating the many decent whites who, little by little, started speaking out and involving themselves.
Do you think that the forces for moderation sought to desegregate in order to profit from black patronage? How sincere do you regard the likes of Edward R. Zane and George Roach in effecting a settlement? And what do you think the majority of citizens of Greensboro sought—continued segregation, or were they secretly relieved at the beginnings of desegregation?
Many businesses were hurt, mostly in their pocketbooks, and they wanted an end to desegregation. Others were fearful of race riots. I believe E.R. Zane was liberal and sincere. I believe Mack Arnold was a sincere person.
Mayor Roach, I believe was not sincere. I felt he was weak and had friends who advised him wrongfully. A majority of Greensboro citizens' consciences bothered them, but a “do-nothing” attitude existed. They were afraid [of] what their neighbors thought or [that] it would hurt them socially or financially.
In retrospect, do you think the goals, limited and long-range, were achieved by the sit-ins? And given the tendency of more militant blacks for violent confrontation with police, do you think that nonviolent protest could succeed today? Were there any militant blacks calling for violent confrontation during the Woolworth sit-ins; if so, what do you think would have been the results of the sit-ins if their advice had been heeded?
And what would have been the result of the traditional court petition methods of the NAACP in the past? Do you think that would have succeeded? Was the concept of nonviolent, deliberate, peaceful breaking of the law regarded as radical at that time? Also, why do you think that the civil rights movement turned from that method to more violent, often fatal bouts with the police in the 1970s?
Certain goals were reached by the sit-ins. The world took notice, battles were won and lost. It was a successful movement. The scars were healed, only temporarily. The public forgets quick; everyone goes their way. Apathy and complacency sinks in. The status quo returns. Other movements began and died.
It's hard to say if a nonviolent protest could begin today. There would be much more bloodshed today because of a militancy, drug-addicted radical group. Many new splinter groups by the hundreds have sprung up. There is no togetherness. There is splintering, division, envy.
I still feel many wrongs are not righted. I feel America must be alerted to the dangers of poverty of the masses of blacks, ghettos, unemployment. It won't take much to have another Watts [riot], or upheaval as in Iran or Nicaragua, or dangerous cults and underground societies like the Minutemen.
Yes, we had a few militants who called for violent confrontations. Stokley Carmichael started off with Black Power and cashed in on the movement. Many blacks, a few whites, cashed in on the movement. If blacks had listened to the few who advocated violent militancy, thousands of blacks and whites would now be dead, businesses burned down, a black and white civil war reaching all areas of involvement throughout the world.
The civil rights movement needed the NAACP. It was the only group that had the money and legal talent to fight the obstacles created by white hate organizations. The NAACP and its persevering court battles won the admiration of liberal and conservative whites and businesses and industries. No, Black Power militancy would have been doomed to failure without the aid of “Green Power” of white friends and wisdom of counseling black and NAACPs.
I believe a lot of cohesion and good was done by outspoken militant blacks, but they aroused a more united white hate group to more open acts of killings, and fear-bombings, and maiming. The 1970s became different in motivation. More radical white groups who used an eye-for-an-eye tactics, used social and Communist ideas that aided Russia and weakened America. Reasoning was put in the background for more open militant violence and confrontation. Many today who like the Communists have gone underground.
What do you see as the current state of the civil rights movement? And what change in focus and emphasis has it made over the last eighteen years since the Greensboro sit-ins?
Greensboro has changed, like many cities in the South. The North and West is no longer the resting place for those who left, many are returning. A new generation of whites and blacks have arrived on the scene. There still is a little resistance. There are still many wrongs to right. We don't [have a] tear or burn America down attitude, but [a] clean it up [attitude]. A move is made at the heart of the ghettoes, but it's still too little, almost too late.
Greensboro has moved forward, as have many cities in the South, but many Northern cities and Western cities are much worse than the South in pretending and hypocrisy. Greensboro has improved, a lot more can be done in race relations.
To what do you attribute the success of the Greensboro sit-ins? And do you consider it a success? What effect did it have on the impetus of the civil rights movement nationally? Did it spark the modern civil rights movement, as some people have claimed? Also, what do you see as the reason that it succeeded, while similar demonstrations which occurred at the same in other parts of the country and the South failed?
The Greensboro sit-in was successful in righting a wrong, but a greater wrong has now taken place. The hub that once was downtown is now a skeleton of empty stores and businesses. Businesses ran away, like a dog with his tail between his legs. Integration and fear drove them to urban areas, shopping centers—not only here, but all of America. They called it “progress” at the expense of a deteriorated [pause] minor hub city in all of America [that was] left to the many blacks with no financial capabilities to run it. Some cities like Los Angeles are trying to rebuild, but the central cities of America are becoming a ghost city at nights, and even shopping centers are feeling the pinch of spreading out too thin and too many.
Yes, the entire civil rights movement was failing until the sit-ins set the spark that set it afire. This is my belief. Reverend Martin Luther King expressed it. And a new leader of black people, who got his start in the sit-ins and became a world-wide figure, Reverend Jesse Jackson, the number one leader of civil rights today, is trying to keep the spark alive.
The idea of mine on sit-ins [is] if started in 1949 or other years, may not have jelled; other movements had failed because of timing. No, the sit-ins would have failed if it hadn't been for many outside factors, namely the news media, involvement of key people in public life, and the making of stalwart new civil rights leaders like [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader] Julian Bond, [Southern Christian Leadership Conference director] Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, many others like the old-timers Roy Wilkins [NAACP head], James Farmer, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. George Simkins. Most of all, Reverend Martin Luther King and his being assassinated, along with Viola Liuzzo [white activist killed by the KKK], Sullivan, a mailman, and many others too numerous to mention. But most of all, the many unheralded nobodies you will never hear: the marchers, the sit-inners, the writers, so forth. My thanks to them. They are the unsung heroes.
What is the ultimate legacy of the Greensboro sit-ins? Did it do more to break down the barriers of segregation than any other single act?
The ultimate legacy of the Greensboro sit-ins is a temporary one of peace and contentment. But there will be other wrongs to be righted. There will be new leaders and new hate groups. Greensboro is just a drop in the bucket of world chaos, because Man will not be allowed dignity of self, and freedom of expression, and most of all, to love and be loved as a human being, as a person.
Yes, barriers will be broken, and the end results will be good. But as fast as they are broken, new barriers will arise. Out of it will come the new battles of civil rights, new leaders. But, as always, the dream of peace, hope, and happiness can only be fulfilled by love, understanding, charity, and compassion. The Bible and Jesus gave us the solution, but who cares about the Bible or Jesus anymore? Only in talk and not active living. Those who believe and act are few. Those who hate, hurt, and divide are many. For many, tomorrow never comes, because many will not let it come.
[End of Interview]