In February 1960 four black college students sat down at a white-only Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Within two weeks, there were sit-ins in 15 cities in five southern states and within two months they had spread to 54 cities in nine states. By April the leaders of these protests had come together, heard a moving sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. and formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Four students did something and America changed. Even they, however, couldn’t know what the result would be.
One of the four, Franklin McCain, would say years later, “What people won’t talk (about), what people don’t like to remember is that the success of that movement in Greensboro is probably attributed to no more than eight or 10 people. I can say this: when the television camerasstopped rolling, the folk left. I mean, there were just a very faithful few. McNeil and I can’t count the nights and evenings that we literally cried because we couldn’t get people to help us staff a picket line.”
Four people. . . . That’s you and the students on either side of you and the one in front of you. That’s all you need to make history sometimes.
I knew a civil rights leader named Julius Hobson. He used to say that he could start a revolution with six men and telephone booth. He seldom had more than ten at one of his demonstrations. Once in a church with about 30 parishioners, he commented, “If I had that many people behind me, I’d be president.”
But between 1960 and 1964, Julius Hobson ran more than 80 picket lines on approximately 120 retail stores in downtown DC, resulting in employment for some 5,000 blacks. He initiated a campaign that resulted in the first hiring of black bus drivers by DC Transit. Hobson forced the hiring of the first black auto salesmen and dairy employees and started a campaign to combat job discrimination by the public utilities.
Hobson directed campaigns against private apartment buildings that discriminated against blacks and led a demonstration by 4,500 people to city hall that encouraged the DC to end housing segregation. He conducted a lie-in at the Washington Hospital Center that produced a jail term for himself and helped to end segregation in the hospitals. His arrest in a sit-in at the Benjamin Franklin School in 1964 helped lead to the desegregation of private business schools. In 1967, Julius Hobson won, after a long and very lonely court battle that left him deeply in debt, a suit that outlawed the discrimination in teaching, teacher segregation, and the unfair distribution of spending, books and supplies. It also led, indirectly, to the resignation of the school ‘superintendent and first elections of a city school board. A few years later he started a third party that got him elected to the city council. And a few years ago that party became the local Green party.
To accept the full consequences of the degradation of the environment, the explosion of incarceration, the creeping militarization, the dismantling of democracy, the commodification of culture, the contempt for the real, the culture of impunity among the powerful and the zero tolerance towards the weak and the young, requires a courage that seems beyond us. We do not know how to look honestly at the wreckage without an sense of surrender; far easier to just keep dancing and hope someone else fixes it all.
Yet, in a perverse way, our predicament makes life simpler. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We can give up our futile efforts to preserve the illusion and turn our energies instead to the construction of a new time.
It is this willingness to walk away from the seductive power of the present that first divides the mere reformer from the rebel — the courage to emigrate from one’s own ways in order to meet the future not as just a right but as a frontier.