Some stories never grow old.
Take the Civil Rights struggle, for example.
On Thursday I joined a group of JCSU students who gathered in Biddle Hall to hear first-hand recollections of the 1960 sit-ins that started in Greensboro and spread to High Point and then to Charlotte.
The most fascinating story, perhaps, came from Mary Lou Andrews Blakeney, back then a 15-year-old student in High Point.
In the winter of ’60, Blakeney said, she and some friends began planning their own sit-in, less than a week after four N.C. A&T freshmen refused to leave a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, which was just up the road.
“The world thought they had lost their minds because they were tired of being tired,” she said of the Greensboro Four. “We all thought they could be killed. “
Sitting in a friend’s home one day, Blakeney and her friends began discussing the Greensboro movement: How had the protestors organized? Where did they find the courage? Could it be repeated in High Point?
The youngest in the room that day was 14, the oldest, 16.
The High Point teens decided they would need a leader, so they turned to the Rev. B. Elton Cox, pastor of Pilgrim Congregational Church, and Miriam Fountain, a retired teacher.
Because of the children’s ages, Cox initially was reluctant.
“Sometimes it’s alright to be young and dumb enough not to be afraid,” Blakeney recalled him telling the teens.
He eventually agreed, but under one strict condition: The movement was to remain nonviolent.
If stuck, the teens could not strike back. If cursed, they could not curse back. If spat upon, they could not spit back.
Within days, dozens of teens began training at Cox’s church. They practiced how to twist their bodies to deflect a blow, how to turn their legs to protect the sensitive shin bone, how to recognize the pursed, white lips that often proceeded the glob of spit.
They practiced role-playing, how they would respond – and not respond — if provoked.
Not every youth who wanted to join was deemed temperamentally suitable. The number was whittled to 26.
As the school day ended on Feb. 11, some 24 students from William Penn High School and two from High Point High School met at the Fourth Street YMCA for last-minute briefings. The remnants of a recent snowstorm still covered parts of the ground.
At approximately 4 p.m. they began marching toward the uptown Woolworth’s, led by Cox and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. They entered the store through a back door and split into small group, pretending to be shoppers.
All watched for the pre-arranged signal.
When Cox doffed his hat, the students scrambled for the empty seats at store’s lunch counter, scattering the white diners who had sat there.
Only one white patron stayed.
Ironically, Blakeney recalled, that patron was listening to a transistor radio, which was playing the tune, “What in the World’s Come Over You?”
A waitress called police.
“They didn’t know what to do with us,” Blakeney said. “All the other cities had college students. We were high school student.”
An mob of angry white toughs soon arrived – James Dean types, Blakeney remembered – and began jostling the protestors and hurling racial insults.
“I’ve never seen such hate, ever,” she recalled. “It was naked on their faces. That was the first time I knew fear.”
When a white teen raised a hand as if to strike Blakeney, her brother raised his fist. For that, she said, her brother was not allowed to join future protests.
“There was not to be a second chance,” she said.
A standoff ensued, and store managers began turning off the lights and closed the store. No one, black or white, would eat at High Point’s uptown Woolworth’s that evening.
The teens and their leaders walked back to the Fourth Street Y singing “We Shall Overcome” and being pelted by snowballs from the angry white mob.
Back in the safety of their own neighborhood, the young protestors began to admit their fears and discuss what had happened.
It would take many more confrontations, they knew.
The High Point movement extended to other local stores, then to movie theaters, churches and City Lake Park. Later that year, Blakeney would take a dip in the city’s whites-only pool, accompanied by a nine-year-old.
The struggle to integrate the city’s institutions lasted another eight years, long after Blakeney had gone to college.
Blakeney told her JCSU audience that it would be wrong to think that only a few brave leaders were responsible for breaking down the racial barriers. Those who lacked the temperament for nonviolence, she said, made protest signs and offered moral support. Others who held important jobs or may have been too afraid to protest often gave cash to support the cause.
Looking back, Blakeney said she and her friends had no idea what they were starting, or where it would lead. All they knew, she said, was that segregation was wrong and had to be ended.
“I have tried to right wrongs wherever I saw them,” she said. “But I never thought I’d still be talking about this 50 years later, which will be February 11, 2010.”
Editor’s Note: Mary Lou Andrews Blakeney eventually became a registered nurse. In Nov. 2008 she was elected to an at-large seat on the High Point City Council.
In the photo above (l-r), Mary Lou Blakeney, Lawrence Graves, BB Delaine and attorney Charles Jones. On Thursday, the four shared their Civil Rights stories with students at Johnson C. Smith University.