A stand for justice

May 13, 2004|By Kenneth Lavon Johnson

IN 1960, I WAS A 22-year-old, second-year student at Southern University School of Law in Baton Rouge, La.

Southern was established in 1880 under an 1879 constitutional mandate to educate "persons of color." It was one of the first colleges for African-Americans that received federal funds for the agricultural and mechanical training of students. It is on the banks of the Mississippi River within clear view of the Louisiana Capitol and the Huey P. Long Bridge that spans the Mississippi.

On Monday, March 28, 1960, at lunchtime, I and six other students from Southern went to the "white only" lunch counter of the S. H. Kress department store in downtown Baton Rouge, took seats and ordered lunch. We were refused service and told to go to the "colored only" lunch counter at the store. A black waitress from that counter came over to where we were sitting and said, "Ya'll are just showing out. You know your mamas and daddies raised you better than that."

I repeated my request to be served iced tea, although I did not own a wallet or have any money. I was a dirt farm boy from Mississippi, having only a change and a half of clothes to my name and no money and nothing to lose. But knowing that we would not be served, we wanted to set up a test case, hoping that it would reach the U.S. Supreme Court, hoping that we would survive to see it through.

The police were called. We were arrested for disturbing the peace and treated to a rough police wagon ride. The driver sped up, stopped suddenly and zigzagged many times on the way to the jail. We tumbled quite a bit.

We spent about eight hours in the racially segregated East Baton Rouge Parish Jail until we were bailed out with money raised in the black community by the Rev. T. J. Jamison. Jail was horrifying. Our cell, called the Bull Pen, was full of accused thugs, rapists and worse, about 40 in all. They treated one another unspeakably, but welcomed us and congratulated us for striking a blow against segregation.

The governor of Louisiana, Earl K. Long, after referring to us as "malcontents," said that if "they want to do any good, they ought to return to their native Africa, where a colored man don't have any more privileges than a good mule does in Louisiana."

Ours was the third lunch counter sit-in of the nascent civil rights movement; James Farmer in Chicago and the students in Greensboro, N.C., preceded us. Nonviolent civil disobedience was still a developing and largely untested tool in the United States, but test cases were not. We'd been inspired by Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, which had paved the way for later court challenges to segregation in transportation and public facilities.

Two days after our sit-in, the president of Southern, Felton G. Clark - son of the founder - ordered the law school dean to expel me and the three other law students who had participated in the sit-in.

Dean A. A. Lenoir, who happened to be my cousin, refused to comply with the order, and the president cut his salary. Southern's all-black faculty agreed with the president that we had caused a lot of unnecessary trouble. It was the kind of trouble that could harm the status quo, the relative economic and social comfort that an emerging black middle class had carved out in a world controlled by white segregationists. The all-white state Board of Education demanded that we be immediately disciplined. So the president convened a faculty disciplinary committee that expelled all of us, three days after our sit-in. The committee said that we had brought discredit upon the university.

A shotgun-wielding escort walked me off the campus.

We were tried by a judge in his racially segregated courtroom. As we had hoped and expected, we were convicted. The judge sentenced us to 90 days in jail, all but 30 days suspended, and fined us $100 each; if we did not pay the fine, 90 days in jail would be added to our sentence. Our attorneys, Alexander P. Tureaud and Johnnie A. Jones, were joined by attorney Thurgood Marshall and his legal team, which included Jack Greenberg and James M. Nabrit II. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed our convictions and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear our case.

I entered Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., where many of my heroes in constitutional-civil rights law and from Brown vs. Board of Education would be our instructors or visiting lecturers, including Mr. Nabrit, Spottswood W. Robinson III, Constance Baker Motley, Robert L. Carter and many others. They would practice their arguments on us in moot court. On the day I arrived at Howard, the Washington newspapers announced the death of Governor Long.

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