The struggle to view films

Way Back When

February 15, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The struggle to integrate the Northwood Movie Theater, which began in 1955, was rooted in the successful integration that year of the Read Drug & Chemical Co. lunch counters by Morgan State College students.

On April 29, 1955, Morgan students, aided by a small contingent from Johns Hopkins University, approached the theater in the Northwood Shopping Center.

As the students approached, an excited manager quickly posted this handwritten sign in the theater's box office:

"Until the Motion Picture Theater Owners of Maryland, of which this theater is a member, and the courts of Maryland advise otherwise, this theater reserves the exclusive right to select its patronage. Please refrain from any activity that might require police action."

It was the beginning of an eight-year, on-and-off protest that culminated with blacks being admitted in 1963.

Students also spent those years picketing other businesses in the shopping center.

"Others sat-in at the Arundel Ice Cream store and the Hecht-May Company Roof-Top cafe (in the largest department store in the shopping center, its main store downtown), leaving only after the reading of the Maryland Trespass Law, a legal requirement in Maryland before arrests for trespassing can be made," writes Barbara Mills in her new book, Got My Mind Set On Freedom: Maryland's Story of Black-White Activism 1663-2000.

The Northwood Theater assumed a new focus in February 1963 when all of the other businesses in the shopping center began to allow black customers. Protesters realized the only way to break the theater's exclusionary ban on blacks was to intensify their demonstrations.

Led by the Civic Interest Group, an integrationist organization established at Morgan in 1953, six days of demonstrations were planned.

"The students started by recruiting Morgan athletes, members of sororities and fraternities, and even the 1963 Miss Morgan, who would be willing to participate and be arrested," writes Mills, a Congress of Racial Equality activist in Baltimore during the 1960s who now lives in Cranston, R.I. "They knew their involvement would attract the largest number of students, generally, to participate."

The first demonstrations on Feb. 15 included 50 students, and half were arrested for disorderly conduct. Five days later, students from Johns Hopkins and Goucher College joined in. More than 100 persons were arrested, with calm prevailing throughout the evening.

The subsequent arrests overburdened Baltimore jails, including 195 protesters who were locked up at the City Jail.

Morgan President Martin D. Jenkins suggested to the theater's owners that if they refused to integrate the theater, the school's entire student body of 2,400 might well end up in jail.

On the sixth day, 300 students ringed the theater as another 74 were taken to jail bringing the total to 415 under arrest.

On Feb. 21, the theater owners capitulated when they called Mayor Philip H. Goodman and agreed to integrate the theater one day after the demonstrations ended.

"I am gratified that this situation has been alleviated since it has been giving our city and its people a bad reputation," Goodman said.

Moses R. Lewis, president of the Civic Interest Group, went to the City Jail to inform protesters about their victory.

"Ladies," Lewis began, "tomorrow at 1 o'clock you will all be able to go into the Northwood Theater."

The women inmates screamed with joy as tears coursed down their cheeks.

"They happily threw themselves on Lewis with such force they knocked him to the concrete floor of the cellblock," reported The Sun.

Mrs. Renold B. Lighston Jr. was the first black person to enter the theater on Feb. 22 when she bought tickets for herself and her children to see Jules Verne's In Search of the Castaways.

"Freedom to buy a ticket to a movie of one's choice at a theater of one's choice is a reasonable aspiration. The denial of this privilege is a just cause for indignation," said an editorial in The Sun.

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