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Cities: Rome
1963 Student Sit-Ins

Less than one month after the desegregation of Rome's Carnegie Library, the city witnessed its first nonviolent direct action by African American         high-school students. On March 28, 1963, over one hundred high-school students marched to the downtown businesses pictured in this clip to challenge the city's Jim Crow accommodations. After G.C. Murphy Co.,   Keith-Walgreen Drug Store, Redford's Variety Store, and Enloe Drug Store denied their requests for service, police moved in. Police arrested only    sixty-two of the Rome protesters although, according to local activist Lavada Dillard, there were enough students present to fill the jail three to four times.

Main High students resolved to hold sit-ins after becoming disillusioned with the slow pace of integration efforts citywide. Eula Mae Farmer recalled her frustration when city leaders attempted to appease the black community by partially desegregating city parks and buses. She and her classmates, including Lonnie Malone, a group leader of the sit-ins, refused to remain idle as students across the country stood in defense of their rights. Days before the 1963 Rome sit-ins, Atlanta University complex students had presented Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. with a letter that noted the slow progress of civil rights legislation.

Although many of the marchers remember that no adults were involved in the protest, some adult members of the community knew about the students’ plans. They cautioned the youthful demonstrators about potential consequences of nonviolent resistance and advised them to leave behind anything that could be considered a weapon. In spite of the potential violence and arrests they faced, the students were determined to follow through with their plans. They journeyed to the lunch counters with money in hand, so that the police could not charge them for requesting service without the means to pay.

Soon after the students sat down at the lunch counters, Rome police arrived to arrest them. The officers took them to the "River Side Hotel," a name playfully given to the city jail by one of the students, on charges of loitering and disorderly conduct. Guards separated males from females, crowded them into cells, and circulated meals of beans, sauerkraut, and corn bread. The jailers turned away parents who brought snacks for their children. Students also reported that guards turned on the air conditioner and opened the windows at night, and turned on the heat and closed the windows during the day. Still, they were not able to break the students' spirits.

Like many civil rights activists, the youth of Rome sang freedom songs for inspiration. The Rome News Tribune reported that many of the demonstrators brought along the lyrics of songs about desegregation. In a rendition of the song "Go Down Moses (Let My People Go)," those arrested sang for President Kennedy to order Nelson Camp, Rome's police chief, to "let my people go." The young people comforted themselves through religious worship on the Sunday before their court dates. They recited the Lord's Prayer (Matthew, 6:9-13) and sang the Negro National Anthem, James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

Because five of the protestors were younger than fourteen years old, police only charged fifty-seven of the sixty-two arrested. The accused students faced five to ten days in jail or paid fines of fifty to one-hundred dollars. They gained legal council from the Honorable Horace T. Ward, a defense lawyer who had served on the legal team of Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter, and Vernon E. Jordan, field director for the NAACP. Once the students were taken into police custody, they and their parents relied on communications between the police department and white Romans who were more sympathetic to the concerns of the Civil Rights Movement. Jule and Rose Levin, members of Rome's Jewish population, came to the aid of the protesters. They were joined by Franziska Boas, a physical education professor at Shorter College and the founder of the Rome chapter of the Georgia Council of Human Relations, along with the other Shorter faculty.

Recent celebrations of Civil Rights Movement activities in Rome have inspired students formerly involved in the sit-ins to commemorate their protest. Willie Mae Samuel has written a performative piece about the sit-ins using students’ memoirs saved by Rose Levin, and collected by Myrtle Jones, an English teacher at Main High in 1963. Her work is entitled It Had to Happen, a reference to the urgency that accompanied students' desires to desegregate the town. On July 5, 2007, Main High school demonstrators gathered at The Rome Area History Museum to record their stories. Two days later, the group reunited in a celebration of this untold sit-in story. They were joined by Rome's city manager, John Bennett, and city commissioners who approved the dedication of "Freedom Garden," adjacent to the Carnegie Library.

By participating in marches and sit-ins, Main High students adapted established nonviolent methods of civil rights activism. They also expanded the traditional narrative of the Movement by shifting the decision-making from adults to children. In contrast with the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, where adult members of the NAACP, like Daisy Bates, orchestrated the desegregation campaign. This moment in civil rights history also demonstrates the considerable involvement of women, who comprised over half of the demonstrators, as well as children, in organizing and implementing acts of civil disobedience.

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Discussion Questions

1. Compare this demonstration in Rome to the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins and the Atlanta sit-ins. What did the three sit-ins have in common? What were their major differences? What happened in the aftermath of each sit-in?

2. Main High students reported that jail guards attempted to make the cellmates as uncomfortable as possible. Read the story Barbwire Theater Comes to Atlanta in the Freedom on Film Atlanta pages. Compare the prison conditions that Barbwire chronicled to those experienced by the Main High School students. Do you think that the experiences of civil rights activists in southern jails increased awareness about the need for prison reform in the United States? In your opinion, has there been progress in prison reform and prisoner rehabilitation since the 1960s? Why or why not?

3. To ease their frustrations on the Sunday before court, the students sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing," written and composed in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamond Johnson. In 1919, the NAACP designated this song as the National Negro Anthem. Read the lyrics and listen to the song. What conditions did African Americans experience in the late nineteenth century that may have lead the two brothers to write this song? How had African Americans' lives changed by the second decade of the twentieth century? What lyrics or stanzas would the Main High School students have found most relevant to the conditions that affected their homes or families?

Take it to the Streets!

Select a block or two from a street in your city's business or recreation district. Draw a diagram representing all the businesses, services, and public facilities on the block. Make a copy of your diagram, then mark an X on premises that would have been decreed off-limits to African Americans in the early sixties, or that would have provided second-class treatment or segregated sitting areas to African American patrons. What does you comparison of the two diagrams tell you about how and why your community has changed since the Civil Rights Movement?

Writer: Christina L. Davis and Lavada Dillard                                              Editors and Researchers: Laura Anderson, Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks, and Professor Barbara McCaskill
Web Site Designer: William Weems

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