Black History Month: The impact the 1963 Woolworth’s Sit-In had on the state, then and now

Published: Feb. 8, 2022 at 11:10 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) -In honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting some fearless individuals who staged a historic sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in the Capital City back in 1963.

On May 28, 1963, courageous students and faculty from Tougaloo College sat at a segregated lunch counter in downtown Jackson.

This was a protest in an attempt to integrate an all-white lunch counter.

That craving for change and hunger to end racial discrimination in the south was a brave move that had a lasting impact on the Civil Rights Movement.

“Believe it or not, there were over 300 sit-in movements. “The Jackson, Mississippi movement is titled and deemed the most violent,” said Gwen Harmon, president of the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center.

Taking part in the protest were students Memphis Norman, Anne Moody, Pearlena Lewis, and Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, along with Professor John Salter.

“The three folks sat down there, and you know, nothing happened, but then those high school boys got down there, and a girl or two,” said Mulholland. “They were not happy.”

Mulholland was a white student, but she was also hungry for change and participated in numerous demonstrations fighting for equality.

She recalls a large and angry mob of whites who felt they had no right to be there, attacking them while trying to have a peaceful demonstration.

“What were they dumping on us? Everything they could get their hands on,” she recalled. “Ketchup, mustard, all the condiments. Memphis Norman got kicked to where he was bleeding out of every hole on his head.”

The assaults against the protestors went on for three hours, with police inside watching it as it happened but doing nothing to stop it.

“You’re talking about people putting out a lit cigarette on your skin,” Harmon described. “You’re talking about them breaking an actual glass container that held sugar and coming at you with a ragged glass edge. You’re talking about hot coffee being splashed in your face.”

Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers helped organize the sit-in and considered stopping it after hearing about what was happening.

“And the students said to tell Mr. Evers no, we don’t want to leave,” said Harmon.

The students wanted to finish what they started, their fight for equality.

It’s something Hezekiah Watkins knows all too well about.

The civil rights activist and Mississippi’s youngest Freedom Rider remembers the struggle to order and be served a simple meal inside restaurants.

“You had to exit the front door, go around back, knock, wait for someone to take your order to eat,” said Watkins.

That’s why he said the sit-in was such a brave and pivotal moment of the civil rights movement.

The entire world had a chance to see the racial injustices African Americans were facing.

“When this group got together and said we’re going to the Woolworth, and we’re going to sit there until we are served, man that was gold,” Watkins expressed. “That was one of the main changes that we wanted. We wanted to sit at the lunch counter. I know I did.”

A tribute to these brave young men and women of the movement is set up inside the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center in Jackson.

“It’s all about being a catalyst for change,” said Harmon. “They believed that they were on the forefront of that change, not just for Jackson, not just for the state, but for the nation.”

And that change would come.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed the following year, ending segregation in public and private places.

She believes that legislation and the right for all races to peacefully eat inside a restaurant stems from what happened in downtown Jackson.

Mulholland said that was the goal they hoped to accomplish all along.

More than 50 years later, the civil rights activist said she’s proud to see the change she and other determined demonstrators help create.

“I think it gave black people more courage to step up, and I think it got more white people thinking about integration and that this is not the way we should be,” said Mulholland.

“Everybody started tearing down those barriers, so it was to me, the thunderous blow that helped that movement be a success,” said Harmon.

May of 2023 will mark 60 years since the sit-in took place.

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