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Morgan State honors its civil rights sit-in pioneers

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BALTIMORE — In 1953, seven years before the formal launch of the sit-in movement, students from Morgan State College were lining up daily at the lunch counter of Read’s drugstore. There, some manager or anxious waitress would recite the Maryland trespassing statute and ask them to leave.

Scholars at the historically black university believe that they were the first students in the nation to organize sit-ins for desegregation. This week, their role in the nation’s civil rights movement was finally honored.

“Please rise,” said Larry Gibson, a University of Maryland law professor, addressing a standing-room-only crowd in Morgan State’s movie theater Thursday afternoon. Half of the audience took to its feet: nearly 200 alumni of what is now Morgan State University, the human legacy of a 15-year campaign of sit-ins, picketing and arrests that transformed a segregated Baltimore.

There was Mel Butler, who sat, hungry, at segregated lunch counters. And Clarence Mitchell III, arrested at the whites-only Hooper’s Restaurant downtown in 1960. And Regina Wright Bruce, jailed with 350 other students in a mass arrest outside the Northwood Theatre in 1963.

And there was John Lewis, the Freedom Rider-turned-Georgia congressman, hailing them from the stage: “Thank you, each and every one of you, for getting in the way.”

Narratives of the student sit-in movement generally begin in 1960, at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. The start of the broader student civil rights movement is generally set in 1955.

Gibson, a tenacious scholar, has unearthed evidence that Morgan State entered racial politics several years earlier. In 1947, several hundred Morgan State students demonstrated in Annapolis for equitable funding from the state. In 1948, Morgan students began to picket performances at Baltimore’s Ford’s Theatre, where black patrons were compelled to use a rear staircase and sit in the second balcony.

Ford’s Theatre desegregated in 1952 after years of relentless picketing. Thirty-seven Read’s drugstores opened their lunch counters to blacks in 1955. Four years later, the protesters forced the desegregation of the chain of Arundel ice cream shops.

Morgan students who protested at the Northwood Theatre in 1963, Gibson said, were the first to use mass incarceration as a desegregation tool. After they spent a week in jail, the theater opened its screens to African Americans.

“Finally, we’re going to set some history straight,” Gibson told Thursday’s crowd.

Morgan State President David Wilson took the school’s annual Founder’s Day as the occasion to open a permanent memorial to its unheralded role in the civil rights movement. Some of the protesters unveiled a series of plaques posted outside the student dining hall, along with a life-size re­creation of the lunch counter at Read’s, a place where every student will see them.

Alumni lingered at the plaques long after the event had ended, marveling at images of their younger selves culled from the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper; other newspapers had paid the protests little heed.

At the time, Morgan students could spend their money at the local Read’s drugstore but couldn’t sit at the lunch counter. Resentment built on campus, where many students were from the integrated north, and groups of Morgan students began to line up at the counter daily.

It took two years of demonstrations, but in 1955, the owners of Read’s opened their lunch counters to blacks. Four years later, in March 1959, another sit-in campaign would later change practices at the Arundel ice cream chain.

“The manager would come over and say, ‘You know you can’t eat here,’ ” Butler recalled. “The students would turn around and walk out. And then we’d come back and do it again.”

The desegregation of the Northwood Theatre was more dramatic. City leaders couldn’t ignore the mass arrests, particularly once it became clear that they intended to remain in jail. City leaders persuaded the owners to back down.

Bruce had gone to the theater with her sister Claudine, unaware of how her day would end.

“We were standing in line,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t have any money.’ She said, ‘We don’t need any money. We’re going to jail.’ ”

They gazed at themselves in an Associated Press photo from that week, a group of female inmates huddled around an issue of the Afro-American. Everyone was dressed in jailhouse grays save Claudine, who refused to wear them, she said, “because I’m not a criminal.”

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