A True Primary Source
Civil Rights leader, James Island resident Minerva Brown King reflects on lessons long learned in Charleston’s own Black History
By Charlie Morrison
A truism is often cited by James Isalnd historians, particularly in regards to the history of Charleston’s African-American community, that the act of recalling, teaching, and telling history is every bit as important as the history itself. So says Civil Rights activist and educator Minerva Brown King, who is quick to add that history is best told once lived. The James Island resident would know, as King herself is living history. As one of 24 Burke High School students who staged the historically important sit-in at the S.H. Kress lunch counter in April,1960, King serves as reminder that Charleston’s significant, relevant history with respect to the Civil Rights movement remains alive and intact.
King and her colleagues amongst the leadership of the group from Burke High set the date for the sit-in for April 1, a school holiday when the students would be free to congregate. They’d planned the event for weeks, modeling their protest after similar sit-ins that had occurred in Greensboro, N.C. and Savannah, Ga. While they were prepared, the event was still difficult to endure, recounts King.
“We pretty much sat there for five-and-a-half hours, occasionally saying the Lord’s Prayer, occasionally saying the 23 Psalm, without getting up or using the bathroom,” says King, now a Librarian at St. John’s High School on John’s Island.
After first entering the lunch counter only to, predictably, be denied service, the group endured a number of tactics from the business’ staff aimed at their expulsion from the lunch counter, tactics that ultimately failed.
Black cooks were brought out in an attempt to convince the students to call off their coup. The manager of the establishment threatened arrest at one point, ammonia was sprayed harshly on the counter in front of them another … a bomb threat was even said to have been called in before the group was ultimately arrested hours later.
“We knew from the beginning that it was going to be a non-violent demonstration, and we did a lot of role playing, to the point of deciding how to make decisions as well as deciding how we were going to react to any abuse, verbal or physical,” says King about their expectations of retaliation.
ThoughKing, then a 15-year-old high school Junior, was the daughter of then-Charleston NAACP President J. Arthur Brown, she and her colleagues decided to keep their event separate of the larger movement at first. “Part of our strategy was to break off on this one. We knew that we’d have the backing of the NAACP, but we just felt it was important to be a student movement at that point,” says King, who admits her father was “very proud of all of them.”
As one of two-dozen students who’d planned then flawlessly executed one of the first student-organized sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement, King’s legacy speaks for itself. Though a modest person, King does recognize the significance of she and her classmates’ stand nearly 53 years ago. “I derive a certain amount of pride from the face that I was a part of a movement that reached the magnitude that it did and served the purpose that it did. It was the beginning of the changing of some attitudes,” she says.
For King, the lessons of the Civil Rights movement in Charleston and across the country are being lost, due to the people who participated not teaching them. “Everything’s cyclical, maybe 10 years from now there will be move interest in the Movement,” says King. Unfortunately, 10 years from now many of the people who could give firsthand information about this time won’t be around. Unfortunately I don’t see most of our students as being very savvy, as being politically aware of our world.”