Editorial: Salisbury’s historic sit-in

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 17, 2011

Come gather íround people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
Youíll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth saviní
Then you better start swimminí or youíll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changiní
ó Bob Dylan, 1963
The winds of change began blowing through Salisbury years before a quarter-million black citizens marched on Washington, before folk singer Bob Dylan warned the world that ěthe times they are a-changiní.î
But a-changiní they were in Salisbury ó and one of those moments is fittingly captured in time in a state museum.
On. Feb. 16, 1960, three black men wearing clerical collars sat down at the lunch counter in the Salisbury Woolworthís and silently joined the civil rights revolution. A high-profile sit-in had taken place just 15 days earlier at a Woolworthís in Greensboro. The message was clear. The ěwhites onlyî policy of lunch counters and restaurants across the South would not stand.
Someone had the sense to save that counter ó stools and all ó and offer it to the N.C. Museum of History after Woolworthís closed here in 1988. Itís part of an exhibit, ěThe Story of North Carolina,î that debuts Nov. 5.
The Woolworthís part of the story may be lost on young people who know nothing of dime stores and lunch counters. Theyíve never lived under official segregation. They have only an inkling of what courage it took to challenge the status quo.
Change was coming in 1960, but denial was strong. It was a prosperous time if you were on the white side of the color line. The top song of the year was the theme from ěA Summer Place.î Elvis sang ěItís Now or Neverî and Chubby Checkers taught us ěThe Twist.î The nationís first televised presidential debate took place, and people feared the election of a Catholic president would give the pope power over the White House.
With cigarette smoking nearly universal, many scoffed at the American Heart Associationís report attributing high death rates among middle-aged men to heavy smoking. Arnold Palmer won the U.S. Open and Sugar Ray Robinson lost the middleweight boxing championship.
Against that backdrop, leading citizens in the black community quietly set about the task of integrating Salisburyís lunch counters, movie theaters and bowling alleys.
Thatís the way integration happened, in big cities and small towns all across the South ó counter by counter, seat by seat. Someone had to be first.
Thank goodness they had the courage and dignity to take their seat in history.