New Bern, NC – In February 1960, four students from North Carolina A&T in Greensboro sat down at the local Woolworth's lunch counter, requested service, and were refused and from there the sit-in movement spread to other Southern cities just not in Wilson, NC.
"What happens in Wilson as best as I can tell, the students in Wilson in 1960 asked Principal Barnes can we have some sit-ins and he says no you can't. As far as I can tell that's sort of the end of it."
Charles W. McKinney Jr., the author of "Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina." The Principal he's talking about worked at the city's supposed separate-but-equal Darden High School. A story or lack of story such as what didn't happen during the sit-in movement would seem to indicate there's not a book in Wilson's civil rights history. But McKinney will tell you he found events that were "just off the front page of national news," and if those events never received national recognition that doesn't mean the events as they occurred in Wilson isn't a story that deserves to be told.
"In the late 60s throughout the 70s and the 80s the focus of the civil rights story and the focus on telling the story of the civil rights movement was a very top down focus, a focus on national leaders, a focus on national organizations like the NAACP and SNCC and the federal government and the role of the president, the role of governors it was a very top-down narrative, and that narrative obscured a lot of the details of local insurgencies, of local struggle, so when we tell a top-down story we lose a lot of nuance."
McKinney's book "Greater Freedom" tries to add that "nuance" by describing in-depth what he describes as a "very vibrant movement" in Wilson. The book includes what might be termed "local flashpoints" in the movement as well as those that preceded the civil rights era, such as this 1942 incident in World War II America.
Reads from page 10
The soldier in the story is Charles Brandford, who later taught at the segregated Darden High School. Brandford was also involved in the stirrings of the civil rights movement in Wilson with his involvement in the Men's Civic Club which in part served as an intermediary between black and white Wilson. Like the national narrative, for a period there was a "top-down" civil rights movement in Wilson, with recognized organizations leading the way. Eventually that movement branched out into the community with local residents frustrated by their lot in life demanding a voice, such as this incident involving Fannie Corbett, at the time a cafeteria cook at an all-white elementary school.
Reads from page 132
"One of their primary motivations to join the movement is the reality of economic inequality. Because of the reality of the fact she is consigned to an economic position based largely because of her race that places her on the margins of economic and social viability, and she says no. This isn't working for me. I can't feed my family. There are other people in my community who can't feed their families, so Corbett is instrumental in helping to mobilize and energize working class A-As in Wilson by significantly expanding the scope of what people would call the civil rights issues. Again, from a top-down narrative, those issues are school desegregation, voting, and into racist violence, but what Corbett does is says, o-k, this movement is also talking a little bit about economics, its talking a little bit about employment, its talking a little bit about pocket book issues. Well, we've got to place these issues front and center, so that's what she does."
Corbett did that by becoming one of the founders of the Wilson Community Improvement Association. And while the youth of Wilson missed the sit-in movement of 1960, they became involved in efforts to desegregate public facilities, including conducting "wade-ins" to integrate city pools.
Reads from page 159
That scene might best illustrate the white community's reaction to the civil rights movement road blocks were put in the way but when those blocks were overran there was begrudging acceptance. And the civil rights movement ultimately evolved to encompass all of the Wilson African-American community from a "no" to sit-ins to an "all-in" on desegregating city facilities.
"For instance, the role of women in a place like Wilson, the role of unions, the role of young people, the role of churches and the role of everyday citizens who may not have participated in marches in mass mobilizations but who did at the same time had a sense they too wanted greater freedom, they too wanted to be more included in the mainstream of American life, so they picked and chose their battles if you will in terms of how to participate, when to participate and in which way they would participate in this larger freedom struggle. When we have and when we engage in these local studies that focus intently on one place, we're better able to see again the variegated nature of the movement there. I think when you look at places like Wilson you become pleasantly surprised at how again how varied the movement could be in a town of that size."
Charles W. McKinney Jr. is an assistant professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of "Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina." I'm George Olsen.