By Sean Yoes
AFRO Baltimore Editor
When the legendary civil rights warrior the Hon. John Robert Lewis died last month, his legacy of unselfish sacrifice on behalf of the disenfranchised resonated throughout not only the nation, but around the globe. A big part of Lewis’ legacy is connected to the early days of the Civil Rights Movement when he was part of a group of Southern college students that would go on to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC.
In the fall of 1959, Lewis made his way to Clark Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. In the church’s basement Lewis and other students intent on smashing Jim Crow in the South were mentored by Rev. James Lawson on the tactics of nonviolent protest.
“Those Tuesday nights became the focus of my life,” Lewis would say later.
In other cities similar gatherings were taking place in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. And Baltimore was not exempt. However, student nonviolent protest actually began in Baltimore in the early 1950’s, predating both Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, which propelled Dr. King as the leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, as well as the founding of SNCC at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina in April 1960.
“When I arrived there (Morgan State College) in 1952, they (sit-in protests) were already underway,” Rev. Douglas Sands told the AFRO from his West Baltimore home on March 9, 2005.
Sands, and the loosely organized Morgan students he led targeted the Read’s drugstore, (a 1950’s precursor to Rite Aid), which also served food at the store’s lunch counter; but only White people could sit down for a meal. Blacks could only purchase carry out.
The Read’s drugstore at the corner of Loch Raven Blvd. and Coldspring Lane, was just minutes from the campus of Morgan State University. Students picketed the establishment outside calling for the end of segregated food service, while students attempted to be served sit-down meals inside the store. “They treated us with so much disdain that they expected that we wouldn’t return,” said Sands, who went on to become a Methodist minister of international renown for decades.
Despite the obstinate and virulently racist staff at Read’s the Morgan students persisted in their protests. “There was an atmosphere at Morgan, it was expected,” said Sands. “I spent part of my day everyday between classes going around campus getting people to picket. I don’t think most of us expected that things were really going to change, or that later on we would see a national movement,” he added. And initially, things did not change, at least not at Read’s.
But, by 1953, the group Sands led was known as the Social Action Committee and the desegregation protests spread from Read’s to the Northwood Shopping Center on Ravenwood Road, also a very short distance from Morgan’s campus.
John Lewis, former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, shown above addressing the 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom.
The Northwood community was a particularly attractive symbol of Jim Crow in Baltimore City. Northwood had established a community association, which implemented a racially restrictive neighborhood covenant crafted to prevent Blacks from moving there. And there were also several segregated stores at the shopping center, among them were the Hecht Company department store, the Northwood Theatre and Arundel’s Ice Cream parlor. In 1953, the Social Action Committee targeted all three. “They didn’t even want you to step on their property,” said Sands. The (White) people became greatly agitated, they threw bottles, rocks, spat at us and called us names.” However, the racist resistance only emboldened the Black student protesters and their numbers and resolve continued to increase. By 1955, the Northwood movement had become much more organized and was recognized throughout Baltimore. Also in 1955, Sands was called to military service and passed the baton of leadership to Clarence Logan, who led an organization called the Civic Interest Group.
“Specifically, the Civic Interest Group is interested in Negroes being served at the Hecht Company’s Rooftop Restaurant and Arundel’s Ice Cream Store, and admission to the Northwood movie theater. Tuesday night, some 100 Negroes entered the restaurant and sat down at tables. Another 60 did the same thing at the ice cream store,” read an AFRO article in 1955.
“You have to understand the dynamics of the demonstration and how it works,” Logan told the AFRO. “It is harassment if you want to know. It’s nonviolent harassment, a dogged effort coming again and again, occupying your place of business, sitting down will wear you down. That’s nonviolence.”
And from 1955 to 1963, Logan directed a massive ongoing sit-in demonstration movement in Baltimore, which captured national headlines.