Knowledge of the events that took place during the Civil Rights Movement and the people that took place in the events is common amongst most people. However, if you asked one of those people how difficult life was for African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement? The question would not be as easy to answer. The life of an African American in the years of 1954-1963 is not as imaginable to people today because of the liberties we experience daily. Therefore by focusing on African Americans in Greensboro, North Carolina, this article will make you aware of the emotional and physical struggles experienced by African Americans in Greensboro and will showcase how Greensboro’s positive attitude change towards African Americans created a better atmosphere for them to live in.

The years from 1954 to 1963 marks a time in which life was extremely difficult for African Americans in Greensboro, North Carolina and within the United States overall. These years are the lifespan of the Civil Rights Movement. During this movement, African Americans in Greensboro suffered mistreatment from Whites because they were denied to exercise their natural rights and this caused them great pains. Attempts to change the discriminatory laws and conditions broke out which increased the hardships African Americans endured physically and mentally before they achieved civil rights.

Economic Hardship

George Simkins’ interview with Karen Kruse Thomas elaborates on his attempts to achieve civil rights. Simkins, an African American dentist from Greensboro, North Carolina during the Civil Rights Movement, made attempts to desegregate two local hospitals, a golf course, a pool and many other local places to promote the Civil Rights Movement. Simkins experienced some failures with his desegregation attempts as well as accomplishments. For example, his attempts to desegregate the local white hospitals had failure and success.

The hospitals’ names were Moses Cone Hospital and Wesley Long Hospital and Simkins and the other plaintiffs began the desegregation process by writing letters to the hospitals asking them to hire African American physicians and dentists as part of their staff. Simkins and the other plaintiffs were denied their requests. However, when an African American male came to George Simkins with a temperature of 103 and a swollen jaw Simkins referred him to L. Richardson Hospital, the local African American hospital. But, the young man could not be seen there because not enough beds were available. Therefore, “Later that same day, I called up Cone and Wesley Long Hospitals, and they had beds available, but they would not accept him because of his race” (Oral History Interview with George Simkins).

As a result, of this blatant act of discrimination Simkins contacted the head of NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Jack Greenberg, to assist him in desegregating the hospital. Greenberg advised Simkins to start a petition and find out what funds the hospital was built on; this information was paramount to the desegregation process. After investigation, Simkins discovered that the hospital was built off federal funds. Thus, the hospital was public property which gave them the opportunity to desegregate it legally. Then, with the help of the NAACP, Simkins and the other plaintiffs filed suit against Moses Cones Hospital. The case was Simkins v. Cones and they lost in the Middle District Court with the judge ruling that the hospital was private and had the right to discriminate. They appealed it to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and received a 3-2 winning decision. Then, the hospitals appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court where they were denied their claim. As a result, the attorney general wrote a brief, on the behalf of Simkins party, to the Court attempting to persuade the Court into opening the hospitals to everyone.

In addition, Simkins discusses the educational and job opportunities provided to African Americans too. He states, “There were only two dental colleges accepting African American students at the time which was Meharry and Howard, in Washington, DC and another school located up north”. Simkins emphasizes that no school in the South accepted African Americans as students during the Civil Rights Movement (Oral History Interview with George Simkins).

From Simkins interview, we can assume that seeking professional employment was extremely difficult for African Americans. This was due to the difficulty African Americans experienced to receive the education required to obtain professional employment. African Americans had difficulty qualifying for good jobs because they lacked the educational requirements necessary to obtain those jobs. This resulted in African Americans occupying low-paying jobs. Being employed with a low-paying job, created a situation where African Americans could not afford to purchase quality products because the wages they earned was not adequate enough to support an average American lifestyle. This illustrates the economic lifestyle difference between African Americans and Whites. Whites were able to get higher paying jobs and afford quality necessities. As a result, the quality of life for African Americans was poor compared to Whites.

Physical Hardship

“I will never forget the night the Klan burned a man alive” is a haunting memory Willena Cannon recalls in Sally Avery Bermanzohn’s Through Survivors Eyes’: From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre. Willena Cannon is an African American female from Mullins, South Carolina. When Willena Cannon witnessed the burning by the Klan she was a 9-year-old child and it was the year 1949. The man that was burned alive was an African American man and the burning took place in the day at a barn in South Carolina (Bermanzohn 3-4). This horrendous recollection of death Cannon has from her childhood illustrates the overall hardships African Americans faced throughout the South.

According to Mrs. Cannon, the man was burned alive because he was dating a white woman and the white woman he was dating was beaten brutally because she refused to accuse the man of raping her which most white women caught with African American men did when exposed of their relations. Mrs. Cannon recalls the sheriff arriving to see what was going on but once he saw that the Klan was leading the commotion he left without helping the African American man (Bermanzohn 3-4). Blatant acts of neglect similar to this example characterized life for African Americans in the years 1954-1963; no protection under the law because African Americans were considered inferior beings.

Overcoming Hardships

After years of oppression, African Americans realized the life they were experiencing was unfair. They contemplated ways to bring an end to this oppression. As a result, heroic people such as the Greensboro Four came about to promote civil rights. The Greensboro Four consisted of four African American male college students that joined the civil rights cause by performing a non-violent protest, a sit in, at the counter in the Woolworth store.  According to William H. Chafe ,the author, of Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom, “On February 1, 1960, four young men from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College set forth on an historic journey that would ignite a decade of civil rights protest. Walking into downtown Greensboro, they entered the local Woolworth’s, purchased toothpaste and other small items, and then sat at the lunch counter and demanded equal service with white persons” (71). This protest by the Greensboro Four is said “…would rank in history like the Boston Tea Party as a harbinger of revolutionary shifts in the social order” (71). This is true because the protest did bring about major changes in the South for African Americans and it is known throughout the United States to have been an extremely successful movement.

Sit-ins in Nashville
This picture illustrates the crowds feelings towards African Americans and towards anyone who tried to help them.

 

This movement is considered successful because the sit in’s performed at Woolworth exposed the animosity between Whites and African Americans. Whites began to commit violent acts towards African Americans. These violent outbreaks against non-violent protestors exposed the ugly truth of racism that existed in America. As a result of this exposure, Greensboro citizens were forced to reevaluate themselves on the terrible racism issue in the city. Their evaluations sparked a paradigm shift in the Greensboro citizen’s minds which inspired them to reform their ways and they began to create a better atmosphere for African Americans to live in. The creation of this better atmosphere was achieved through law and through people’s positive attitude change towards African Americans. By creating laws that protected African Americans from discrimination, African Americans were provided equal protection under law and the attitude change towards African Americans made people more accepting; as a result, violent acts decreased and life became more peaceful. This contributed to the better atmosphere for African Americans to live in because they no longer had to live with fear that they may be attacked or mistreated by Whites.

 

The fight to obtain civil rights was not an easy one but African Americans showcased strength and endurance during the Civil Rights Movement, especially since, they were affected emotionally and physically from the struggles they faced daily to survive. This is what makes life today special and inspirational. We are able to experience liberties of life because of the sacrifices made by others before our time that envisioned a better tomorrow for future generations. Therefore, African Americans who placed themselves in harms’ way to promote civil rights are heroes for fighting for what they believed in and by making life as we know it today possible.

"The Greensboro sit-in counter"
The Woolworth counter where the first sit-in took place.

 

Bibliography

Bermanzohn, Sally Avery. Through Survivors Eyes’: From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press. 2003. Web. 24 February 2011.

Oral History Interview with George Simkins. April 6 1997. Interview R-0018. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007). University Library, UNC-Chapel Hill. Published by Documenting the American South. Web.  24 February 2011.

Sitton, Claude. Negro Sitdowns Stir Fear Of Wider Unrest In South. 2003. Book.

Chafe, William Henry. Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1981. Web. 24 February 2011.

Davis, Townsend. Weary Feet, Rested Souls: A Guided History of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: W.W. Norton. 1998. Web. 24 February 2011.

About the Author

Karletha Jordan is a Freshman student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is currently majoring in Business and plans to attend the Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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