THE ROOTS OF SOCIAL PROTEST
CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT ■ CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT ■ CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT ■ CIVIL RI GHTS MOVEMENT ■ CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT ■ CIV IL RIGHTS
After all, in the ’50s, commentators
described college students as “the silent
generation.” “Their minds are as quiet as
mice,” a professor complained. “They whisper their hopes,” said another.
They were conformists. Careful. Unintellectual. Nonpolitical. Their only protest
was staging panty raids. In September
1959, the editor of The Daily Tar Heel
lamented that “the common student [at
Carolina] chides his roommate for spending too many hours in the library and not
enough at the fraternity house … .”
But this portrait overlooked what lay
beneath the surface. Many young people
longed for greater meaning in their lives.
Like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the
Rye, which was a campus best-seller, they
deplored “phoniness.” They read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road
and longed for passion. They studied Albert
Camus’ essays and imagined what it meant
to define oneself through existential action.
They. We. I was one of them. We were protesters inside our heads. We just didn’t know
how to translate our ethical values and secret
longing into action — how to get out of
ourselves and into the world.
Then in February 1960, four black freshmen in Greensboro showed us how. They
sat at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. Within
weeks, thousands of college students, black
and white, all across the South were picketing segregated establishments, sitting in,
singing We Shall Overcome and going to jail.
The Greensboro sit-in was the spark
that ignited the underlying circumstances.
The number of people aged 14 to 25 was
growing exponentially. Economic prosperity enabled these young people to go to
college. For four years they had time to try
out different identities, time to participate
in meetings and demonstrations. Meanwhile, national TV news showed them
what their fellow students were doing in
Berkeley, Austin and Madison. The perfect
circumstances for youthful protest.
The civil rights movement was, in all
senses of the word, the primary movement
of the five protest movements I’m going to
discuss. It set the model: direct action (put
your bodies on the line); nonviolence; and
build a community. It spawned the subsequent protesters — and also the conservative
opponents of those protesters.
Two weeks after the N.C. A&T students
began their sit-in, the Dialectic-Philan-thropic Society debated and then approved
a resolution supporting their action. The
author of the resolution was David Price
’ 61, who would eventually be a member of
a large debating fraternity, the U.S. House
Meanwhile a DTH editorial proclaimed: “We hope they win. We hope they
win BIG. And we hope they will SOON.”
But these were words, not action. What
were UNC students doing?
Members of the Campus Y, where Anne
Queen presided, had been investigating discrimination by Chapel Hill business establishments. But it would be two years before
students took action. Pat Cusick ’ 63, an Air
Force veteran from Alabama, and John
Dunne ’ 65, a Morehead Scholar from
Ohio, formed a group called the Student
Peace Union. They linked up with black
activists at the local high school, in
Durham, and at Duke University. On April
15, 1963, SPU began picketing the College
Cafe on Franklin Street. This quickly
expanded to demonstrations against other
restaurants and Memorial Hospital.
Liberal Chapel Hill proved to be not
very liberal — in fact, bitterly resistant to
desegregating public accommodations.
Merchants blocked the demonstrators,
evicted them, had them arrested, and in
two notorious instances, urinated on them
and doused them with ammonia.