Civil Rights Activism, and Literacy
It may be difficult to imagine, but there was a time in our country’s history when buying and selling humans was a legal and common practice. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Transatlantic Slave Trade of enslaved Africans was a thriving industry here in the United States, including right here in South Carolina. In fact, Slavery wasn’t abolished until 1865. This means that while American colonists were fighting for their independence from Great Britain, they were engaged in a social caste system that supported the enslavement of African people who were owned by propertied white men.
Historians have called American slavery a peculiar institution because it created false and dehumanizing assumptions about Black people. Slavery was a brutal and corrupt way of life that promoted the idea that Black people were inferior to white people. The enslaved were treated as property instead of human beings, so much so families could be torn apart at auction because different planters wanted different members of the family. Slavery was extremely hard on those in bondage. On most days, enslaved Africans were beaten, deprived of nutritious food, and forced to work long hours. In South Carolina, this typically meant working in rice or cotton fields. Also, those who were enslaved were forbidden from learning to read and write. Nevertheless, the enslaved found ways to secretly learn how to read and write because literacy could be an actual key to freedom! With these literacy skills, some enslaved Africans devised cunning escapes by forging their very own Manumission papers—papers that granted freedom.
Even after slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment , newly freed Black people faced enormous obstacles to getting a quality education, finding equal employment opportunities and decent housing, and earning fair wages throughout the country. Many Black people took part in the Great Migration, moving north and west in the hopes of finding better opportunities in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia since those regions had abolished slavery much earlier than the South had.
Oratory was another literacy tool used. This was employed by many formerly enslaved people who became abolitionists. In his autobiography, Incidents in the Life of Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass recounts his marvel at the “talking book” which piqued his interest in reading. Other slave narratives, such as Olaudah Equiano’s, also recalled the mysterious “talking book.” What Douglass and Equiano witnessed was their white slave owners reading aloud from a book they were holding. Eventually, through hard work and secrecy, Douglass, Equiano, and countless other enslaved people learned to read and write because they realized the importance of literacy and its connection to spiritual and physical freedom!
Three Types of Literacy
Oral literacy: The ability to convey one’s thoughts and feelings in words.
Reading literacy: The ability to read and understand a text.
Writing: The ability to write one’s thoughts and feelings.
Although they had once been enslaved and suffered countless years of oppression and systemic racial subjugation, African Americans understood the importance of education and worked extremely hard to secure quality education for their children. Equal education was one of the cornerstone issues of the modern civil rights movement of the twentieth century.
People like Thurgood Marshall, Septima P. Clark, Esau Jenkins, Judge Waring, and Millicent E. Brown fought to make sure that all American children received the same quality education.
A Southern Firing Line:
The Southern Youth Legislature Conference
Columbia, South Carolina 1946
One of the first radical-left youth social movements born during Jim Crow America was the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC). Founded in 1937, SNYC fought for social and economic equality, serving Southern African Americans through radical and militant activism until disbanding in 1949. Though only formally active for twelve years, SNYC embedded its radical identity into many different spheres of Southern life by focusing on progressivism and equality. SNYC initially aimed to address the Southern racial disparities, yet quickly began combating Jim Crow nationwide. SNYC exemplified how a Southern youth movement could create a biracial platform that garnered regional, national, and international support.
SNYC saw an opening for a post-war era of activism that would concentrate on racial and economic justice. From October 18–20, 1946, SNYC held its largest annual meeting, gathering to combat “Fascism in the south.” SNYC members understood the Southern states, particularly South Carolina, were sympathetic to racist, fascist ideologies. This forced the youth organization to rally in the state’s capital for progressive activism. Columbia, South Carolina, hosted a three-day conference where more than 2,000 people of all racial and economic backgrounds came together to fight for equality in the South.
The 1946 meeting at Benedict College provided a snapshot of the South Carolina’s Black Left before McCarthyism fractured it. This gathering was the most significant conference SNYC had ever seen. In addition to the thousands of Black and White Southern youth, the conference attracted international speakers from multiple countries. While the Second World War raged across Europe and Asia, SNYC served as the stronghold of Southern Black freedom, most notably South Carolina’s SNYC membership, due to its “leadership of novel forms of activism based on an international yet grassroots politics, as well as the SNYC’s open challenges to Jim Crow in the South.” In their last major meeting, SNYC activists convened to discuss voting rights, police brutality, and the lynching epidemic plaguing the nation.
The Struggle for Quality Education
Education provides the tools to think critically about the world around us, to make a living for our families, to create innovative inventions to enhance our quality of life, and to better and strengthen our communities. While South Carolina was in its infancy, white residents petitioned their state representatives for free public elementary education. These early leaders eventually wrote and passed the Free School Act of 1811 through both the South Carolina State Senate and House of Representatives. This meant elementary education was available to all pupils free of charge; however, the “all” did not include Black children, irrespective of their enslaved status. Nevertheless, Black children still found ways to be educated, whether it was from sympathetic white people who tutored them in secret or sneaking to classes and overhearing lessons. Some Black people even taught themselves to read and write, passing their knowledge on to others.
With the end of slavery after the Civil War, many people thought they would finally have access to public schooling. However, upon realizing local governments were not going to provide their children access to these institutions, some African Americans established their own schools during and after Reconstruction , understanding the value and need of education. One such school was the Bettis Academy located in Edgefield County, South Carolina. Bettis Academy’s founder was the Reverend Alexander Bettis, a formerly enslaved man who understood the importance of quality education to the future of his people. Although he had no formal education himself, Rev. Bettis worked with members of his community of mostly formerly enslaved men and women, purchased twenty-seven acres of land, and built a one-room elementary school that opened on January 1, 1882. Bettis Academy originally had a principal, one teacher, and roughly a dozen students; but as the news of the school spread, enrollment grew. Some students even traveled great distances to attend. Soon, more teachers were hired and more buildings were built.
As this was happening, neighboring white residents monitored the growth and development of Bettis Academy, and many were not happy. Fear and racism ensued, with Rev. Bettis and his family receiving death threats and the school succumbing to arson several times. Yet, this did not deter Rev. Bettis. The Academy flourished, providing elementary, high school, and junior college training for Black students for over seventy years. Bettis Academy closed in the early 1950s.
With the ruling of the case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the US Supreme Court ruled racially separate facilities or segregation were not illegal as long as those facilities were equal in quality. This was all the South needed to begin enacting “Jim Crow” laws that enforced segregation. However, these separate facilities were in no way equal. For example, Black schools were not given the same funding as white schools. This meant limited supplies, books, and other vital educational resources, including school buses to transport Black children to school. In many instances, Black children had to walk many miles roundtrip for their education.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
In the early 1950s, African Americans from five different communities nationwide fought against school segregation in a series of court cases that became known as Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. The ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor essentially overruled Plessy v. Ferguson, stating school segregation was unconstitutional. One of the court cases argued in Brown v. Board of Education was from South Carolina, Briggs v. Elliott of Summerton.
Briggs v. Elliot
As part of the larger Brown v. Board of Education case, Briggs v. Elliott of South Carolina was one of the key cases that fought against Jim Crow laws in the schools.
In 1947, when the case first began, South Carolina law read, “Separate schools shall be provided for children of the white and colored races, and no child of either race shall ever be permitted to attend a school provided for children of the other race.” However, with help from NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall, Reverend J.A. DeLaine of Clarendon County, and seventeen families from Summerton, South Carolina, the case against school segregation was fought all the way to the United States Supreme Court. These courageous activists faced intimidation, violence, and retaliation for speaking out against such an unjust system.
On May 17, 1954, the US Supreme Court decreed school segregation unconstitutional and called for the desegregation of all public schools in the United States. Though many white communities resisted the ruling, brave youngsters of all ages across South Carolina and the nation championed the decision and broke down Jim Crow one school at a time.
Civil Rights: Protest & Activism
“Anger serves a purpose…It’s a normal response. However, it’s anger driven toward a meaningful change that is needed.”
Protest and activism are ingrained in the fabric of American culture. From the Boston Tea Party of 1773 to abolitionist movements of the nineteenth century, American citizens have assembled and protested against unjust regulations in society. Many tactics have been used in the history of activism, such as marches and boycotts; but now, with the evolution of technology and social media, strategies for effective demonstrations have entered the digital age. Currently, we have online petitions, hashtags, and viral news that can spark a revolution. In South Carolina, some of our major movements were led by students who used tactics that were innovative for the time and caused a shift in the fight for freedom.
The Friendship Nine—“Jail, No Bail”
The Friendship Nine was a group of African-American men that was jailed after staging a sit-in at a segregated McCrory’s lunch counter in Rock Hill, South Carolina. On January 31, 1961, students from Friendship Junior College and others picketed McCrory’s to protest the segregated lunch counters at the business.
They entered, took seats at the counter and ordered hamburgers, soft drinks, and coffee. The students were refused service and ordered to leave. When they didn’t, they were arrested and convicted of trespassing and breach of the peace. They were sentenced to serve thirty days of hard labor or to pay a $100 fine. One man paid the fine, but the remaining nine chose the hard labor at the York County Prison Farm. The group gained national attention because it followed an untried strategy called “Jail, No Bail,” which lessened the huge financial burden civil rights groups were facing as the sit-in movement spread across the South. The group became known as the Friendship Nine because eight of the nine men were students at Rock Hill’s Friendship Junior College.
In 2007, Rock Hill unveiled a historical marker honoring the Friendship Nine: John Alexander Gaines, Thomas Walter Gaither, Clarence H. Graham, Willie Thomas Massey, Willie Edward McCleod, Robert L. McCullough, James Frank Wells, David Williamson, Jr., and Mack C. Workman. The South Carolina Black History Bugle honors the Friendship Nine, unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, for sacrificing their freedom for others.
The Orangeburg Massacre refers to South Carolina Highway Patrol officers shooting protesters on South Carolina State College’s campus in Orangeburg, South Carolina on February 8, 1968. One hundred fifty protesters had previously demonstrated against racial segregation at a local bowling alley. Three protesters were killed and twenty-eight other protesters were injured. Although not all students participated in the mass demonstrations, having the right to do so should have been protected and enforced by public officials.
How Things Unfolded
A local white businessman owned and operated the segregated All Star Bowling Alley. Black community leaders tried to convince the owner to desegregate the establishment for weeks, hoping to avoid a direct action of protest. He refused.
On February 5, 1968, students began protesting using the sit-in method and ended their demonstration peacefully once they were instructed to leave.
On February 6, local police conducted mass arrests and violent attacks on peacefully protesting students.
With growing frustrations, the student activists submitted demands to the governor, calling for the end of racial discrimination in their community. The response to their demands was a large police presence by the National Guard, the South Carolina Highway Patrol, and local officers.
On February 8, 1968, student activists held a bonfire on South Carolina State College’s campus as an outlet for their anger over the injustices in their community. Police extinguished the fire the first time to little resistance from the students. The students eventually rebuilt the Symbol of rage and the officers worked to put it out a second time. Violence soon erupted, with South Carolina Highway Patrolmen opening gunfire on the students. They killed Samuel Hammond, Jr., Delano Middleton, and Henry Smith and injured dozens more, including Cleveland Sellers (currently the president of Voorhees College in Denmark, SC). Sellers would later be wrongfully convicted of inciting a riot.
The South Carolina Black History Bugle honors the victims and the survivors of the Orangeburg Massacre.
The Brown Family: A Legacy of Activism
Millicent E. Brown was destined for a life in activism. Born in 1948 to activist parents MaeDe and J. Arthur Brown in Charleston, South Carolina, Millicent became a catalyst for change in the court case that originally began with her older sister, Minerva. Millicent was the primary plaintiff in an NAACP lawsuit-Millicent Brown V. Charleston County School District #20. Brown’s upbringing in an activist household, combined with her experience integrating Rivers High School in Charleston, have shaped her world outlook and career choices. Brown’s early education in all-Black schools, her role desegregating Charleston County public schools, and her subsequent education in three newly integrated public institutions- Rivers High School, The College of Charleston, and The Citadel University- afford us the opportunity to examine the impact that civil rights activism, namely Desegregation efforts, have had on education and social justice activism.
A Brave Girl Named Millicent
In 1963 when Millicent E. Brown finally won the opportunity to enter Rivers High School, she was one of only two African American girls in the entire school. She was in tenth grade and the other student was in eighth. Although her parents and community encouraged her to be strong, Millicent had to muster the fortitude to attend a new school where she was not only unwelcomed by teachers and classmates but also isolated from the only other person she knew.