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Integrating Salisbury theaters: They took a stand — by taking a seat

Editor’s note: This column by the late Salisbury Post columnist Rose Post first appeared in the paper Oct. 31, 2004.

Ask the Rev. Richard Stewart to name the most memorable days in his life, and he doesn’t hesitate.

“The two days and three nights I spent in jail in Salisbury, North Carolina,” he says.

And last weekend, coming to Salisbury for Livingstone College’s homecoming and to visit his adopted son, the Rev. Reginald Broadnax, dean of Hood Seminary, he realized he had another reason.

He had to tell the story of Feb. 28, 1962.

“I think about it every time I come,” he says.

“But the urgency to talk about it this time is to make sure the history of what happened here is recorded so coming generations will understand the foundations that had to be laid so we can enjoy the society we now have.”

One of those foundations was to make sure the color of a person’s skin wouldn’t dictate where he had to sit in a movie theater.

When Richard Stewart was here in the early ’60s, it did.

That’s why he and 15 other Livingstone College students — and a young man who just happened to be in front of the Capitol Theater in the first block of West Innes Street — spent those two days and three nights in the Rowan County jail.

Now, all these years later, Stewart and others of that group who “broke the law” hope to have a reunion here in February when Livingstone celebrates its annual Founders’ Day, a reunion of the guys who tried to take a stand — or to be more exact, a seat — where they weren’t supposed to stand or sit.

They tried to go into the downstairs theater of the Capitol. That was against the law. Only whites could sit downstairs. Blacks had to sit in the balcony.

They didn’t make it. They got no further than the lobby.

But they did it to say the law had to be changed — and to know for the rest of their lives that they had been part of the nation’s Civil Rights movement that changed the lives of their country’s African-American citizens.

And that’s important.

Important enough to ignore that the only sleep they got in jail was a catnap here and there — “and the food,” Stewart remembers, “was awful!”

But it was doing something, something they felt they had to do.

Beginning with sit-ins

The Woolworth sit-ins in Greensboro were in 1960.

Their dean, the Rev. Edgar French, had come from Montgomery, Ala., where he worked with Martin Luther King.

Later there were marches, especially the march from Livingstone to the Square in support of the 1965 Selma March for voting rights in Alabama.

Ironically, Salisbury was competing for the title of All-America City, Stewart remembers, “and some students were questioning whether or not segregation should allow it to be named.”

But he remembers that at the same time, “there was fellowship between Livingstone and Catawba colleges.”

That was a positive.

But segregation was not.

“So eventually we said we were going to try to desegregate the movie theaters … and the plans were laid.”

They came to town, going first to the Center Theater, which is now the Meroney on South Main Street.

“But they turned us away,” he says, “so we came on to the Capitol on West Innes.”

It was Salisbury’s largest theater — and the ticket seller at the Capitol “also turned us away, but we did purchase tickets — one for the colored section, one for the white.”

Four students — Richard Stewart among them — bought tickets and started into the downstairs theater.

Theater manager Paul Phillips, well-known Salisbury civic leader, did what he had to do, Stewart says.

He called the police.

“We’d broken the law,” he says. Not only had four of them bought tickets for the white downstairs area but had actually entered the lobby and got as far as the popcorn machines in the vestibule.

“The police car pulled up, and the policeman told us to get in. Four of us got in. There was room for a fifth student, and a boy was standing on the curb.”

He wasn’t part of the protesting group, “but the cops saw him speaking to us and took him, too.”

And other students came at five-minute intervals.

When the police had arrested 17, counting that non-involved extra, he says, “they finally stopped. They said they had enough.

“And the whole time we were there we sang and prayed.”

In fact, that was how the Salisbury Post’s front page story, headlined “Negro Student Demonstrators are Jailed Here,” started.

“Sixteen Livingstone College students,” an unnamed reporter wrote, “sang and prayed the night through in the county jail following their arrests yesterday afternoon and last night on charges of trespass at the Capitol Theater here.”

•••

The students were put in jail after refusing to accept bond for their release. Police Chief Dave Shuler had offered to release them in the custody of Dr. Sam Duncan, president of the college then. No cash bond was asked. Sixteen of the 17 arrested refused the offer.

The students were scheduled to be tried in county court Thursday.

“These are the first ‘civil rights’ arrests to be made here since the wave of sit-ins started in Greensboro several years ago,” the report said.

“The only previous demonstration by Negroes here came several weeks ago when some Livingstone students marched through town in a general protest against ‘discrimination.’

The newspaper story said Phillips stopped the first five Negro youths, including Richard Stewart, and told them they could not be seated downstairs.

“When they persisted, a velvet theater rope was brought out and placed before the entrance. The youths at no time attempted to push their way into the theater.”

But the police were called, including Capt. H.E. Kesler and Lt. R.C. Kirchin.

Kirchin said they were on private property and acted illegally when they didn’t leave the premises when they were given five minutes to go.

Phillips then got a warrant.

While waiting for their arrests, the students said their action was for “civil rights.”

They denied race relations in Salisbury were “very good,” a statement made by the local ministerial alliance and repeated at an All- America City hearing in Miami Beach, Fla.

And they denied they represented any organized racial or interracial groups.

Neatly dressed and restrained, they waited quietly.

“The principal indication of their emotion came during one period when they began singing, rather well, the Negro Anthem,” the reporter wrote.

Despite the long wait while word of a demonstration spread through the business district, only a few people gathered and no verbal or physical exchanges occurred.

“It was somewhat,” the story continued, “like a play in which everyone had his part down in apple pie order.”

In the meantime, an officer went to the balcony and returned with the tall, blond white youth who had bought a balcony ticket.

It was Max Yoder, 19, of Goshen, Ind., a freshman and probably the first white student ever registered at Livingstone.

Yoder had tried earlier to crack the color line there.

Each time he’d been accompanied by a Livingstone coed, and they’d offered to sit in either the balcony or downstairs, but had been turned back both times. Once they got seated downstairs before management saw them.

About 9:15 p.m. a number of students appeared at the theaters, carrying signs bearing civil rights messages.

County Jailer Charles Herion reported the next morning that there was “little sleep for anyone around the jailhouse” that night.

Among the songs he heard were “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “We’ve Got the Whole World in Our Hands.”

•••

Several more stories in the paper that day dealt with the incident, and Stewart got copies of them from the microfilm at the Rowan Public Library to take home with him.

History room staffers Deborah Rouse and Vanessa Sterling also made copies for the files, which put it on record — and now this account puts it on the Internet.

One of the other stories in that day’s Post quoted Cameron Jackson, vice president of the student body, who said demonstrations at local theaters would continue.

Another quoted a student who said the proceedings “were just the steps in our struggle and quest for human dignity and equality.”

Another said Livingstone President Sam Duncan didn’t know the sit-in was coming, but he wasn’t surprised.

The theaters, he said, represent a particularly tense area because they create “a terrific psychological block,” since movies are about the only recreational outlet off campus available to students.

“With the desegregation of chain stores, drug stores, several eating establishments, transportation and admission to the services of white churches, Christianity and democracy are being furthered in Salisbury,” he said. “ This represents attempts of students and others to further the process to include movie houses and then should be no surprise.

“ …. I firmly believe,” he concluded, “that if a solution can be found to the problem of the moment, anywhere in the south, Salisbury is the place.”

Another story said the 17 students were to appear before Judge George Burke in county court on Thursday.

“The whole time we were there,” Stewart says, “we sang and prayed. We thought we were making a statement and we felt like something good was going to come out of our having gone to jail …

“Salisbury, at that time, prided itself on good race relations, and we knew they were going to select persons — not us — but prominent people in the African-American community,” he says, to repeat the move.

And he was so right.

Probably less than a month later, Duncan, the late Livingstone president who wasn’t surprised when his students made the first move, and his good friend and prominent black businessman, Wiley Lash, who owned Lash Grocery and was later Salisbury’s first black mayor, went to see a movie at the Capitol Theater.

They bought tickets, went into the “white” theater, sat down and watched the movie.

And they went back the next day. And the next. Reports at the time indicated that they broke the law daily for about a week, even though the movie changed only once.

And those same stories go further.

Wiley Lash let it be known that Duncan couldn’t stay awake, so he spent much of his time poking his friend’s arm, pleading, “Sam! Wake up!”

After that, Richard Stewart says, “things just opened up.”

•••

He’ll never forget that first move the students made — nor Paul Phillips, the manager of the theater.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you guys come back later?’ ” Stewart remembers. “He was a nice man, and he knew it was just a matter of time. But he did his job.”

And in short order, the theaters were open, with no racial restrictions.

The restaurants followed — and Stewart could order a banana split at Woolworth’s.

“I tried to order banana splits before that,” he recalls. The Woolworth counter had a banana split gimmick.

“Behind the counter were balloons and you bought a balloon. They had varying prices on them, and that was the price of your banana split. But they never sold us one …

“But Salisbury was starting to integrate. The city didn’t want negative things to happen. You had the kind of leadership here that worked quietly behind the scenes to get things done … ”

But that’s a long time ago.

“I’m getting older,” he says, and another of those students who spent the night in jail feels the same way he does about coming back to see the progress that has been made.

So they’re working on that Founders’ Day reunion.

“Everybody will be amazed at how much Salisbury has grown and how much things have changed,” he says.

“And some of us,” he says, are planning to come to the Salisbury Post’s parking lot where the Capitol Theater’s lobby and popcorn machine once stood and stand there and reminisce.

“For most of us it was a positive experience. We’re able to say we did our little bit.

“Every man, every woman has to do what they can as they pass through life. Only history can judge their efforts.”

But he sighs.

“I never got to see a movie there,” he says. “They tore it down.”

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