It was, as most reunions are, bittersweet.
Yesterday, after 30 years, seven Southern University students who in 1960 led Louisiana's first student sit-in, at an S.H. Kress drugstore, met at the Howard Inn here.
As a result of the sit-in to integrate public facilities, the seven were jailed and later were expelled from school. Their case was the first student sit-in case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. Their actions, along with many others, sounded the death knell for legal segregation.
By any standard, they are an illustrious group, these seven. Three are lawyers, one is a judge, another a university professor, several own businesses. Nowadays, they are scattered across the country. None stayed in Louisiana. They have families, professional success, status in their communities. They have come a long way since 1960, but they have not lost their commitment to black people, to civil rights. The activism begun at Southern University still frames and directs their lives.
"We wanted to give support to the students sitting in in North Carolina. The sit-in was just a burning desire to do something to help them," said Janette Hoston Harris, who helped organize the reunion.
"What we did gave me a feeling that I could make a difference," said Kenneth Johnson, now a Circuit Court judge in Baltimore. In 1960, Johnson, a native of Mississippi who grew up without electricity or indoor plumbing, was 22 and in his second year of law school. "That feeling has never changed, even though I don't know how much difference I've made."
Yesterday, the seven participated in a discussion of how the sit-in changed their lives, what form their commitment to civil rights now takes, and strategies for the future.
Before the sit-in, John Johnson, now a corporate lawyer in New York, was, at 24, "en route to a country law practice in Louisiana." Felton Valdry, originally from Bush, La., and now a real-estate developer in California, was a 22-year-old chemistry major in 1960.
Valdy said the segregated life he had expected to lead, and the sit-in, pointed out the contradictions between the classroom and life after school.
"Suddenly, I had to deal with what I was being educated for, as opposed to real life."
"We were expelled 28 days before graduation," said Marvin Robinson, chuckling. Robinson, who at 25 was president of the student body and "orchestrated" the sit-in, now owns a company in Texas. "I was on my way to become Southern's track coach. Instead, I became one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee."
"If I had to do it again, yes, I'd do it again, the same way," said JoAnn Morris, now an administrator at Spelman College in Atlanta. In 1960, Morris was a 19-year-old freshman at Southern. Hers was a sentiment articulated by each of her colleagues, except Donald Moss.
In 1960, Moss, 21, a native of Winnfield, La., was married and a second-year law student. "It was really negative in my life. It disrupted my life, and I never felt I deserved it," said Moss, who is now director of Kittrell Job Corps in Kittrell, N.C. Moss's pain was evident in his voice. "I wanted to be free without paying any dues. And I'm still mad about it. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't."
Hoston Harris, today a professor of history at the University of the District of Columbia, was a 24-year-old biology major in 1960. "The sit-in was just another activity I was involved in," said Hoston Harris, whose parents were activists when she grew up in Monroe, La..
After her expulsion from Southern, Hoston Harris's family was harassed to such an extent that they moved to Washington. "But I didn't know it was going to disrupt my life as it did."
About midway through the program, Moss remarked that, "I haven't changed in 30 years. Really, none of us has." It was a sentiment echoed by his six friends. There was lots of teasing, tale-telling and laughter. An intimacy, forged 30 years ago, remained vivid.
When it came to talking about the future and young people, the seven, each of whom works with young people in some capacity, were particularly critical. "I am disappointed in youth, but I am more disappointed in myself and those of our age for not giving them the courage," Kenneth Johnson said. "We really have not done our job. We have given them the wrong message by our inaction."
The seven agreed that there is a need for education, mentoring and innovative approaches to problems of dysfunctional families -- as well as for teaching young people a strong value system.
They also see a need for lobbying, political diversity, economic self-sufficiency. And for coalition-building. "There wouldn't have been a civil rights movement if black people hadn't had support," Moss said.
After they were expelled from Southern, the seven scattered to other schools. Some were helped with tuition costs by the New York-based Roothbert Foundation, which funded yesterday's reunion.
When the formal discussion was over, the seven went to Hoston Harris's house for ribs, fish, libation and, of course, lots more discussion. Not only of problems, but solutions.