History Remembered: a 1963 Sit-In in Rome for Civil Rights

April 19, 2013
Linda Cason-Harbert, Lavada Dillard , Marisue Harrison-Brown

Linda Cason-Harbert, Lavada Dillard, Marisue Harrison-Brown

GHC celebrates Women’s History Month every year with one or more events.  This year’s may have been some of the most fascinating.  At the Floyd campus, students honored three women who took part in the Civil Rights movement of 1963.  The event took place on March 27, a day before the 50th anniversary of the historical sit-in that marked the most visible Civil Rights activity in Rome.  Marisue Harrison-Brown was the first to enroll at Berry College amid jeers, derision and angry eyes that looked quickly away from her.  Linda Cason-Harbert and Lavada Dillard attended all-black Main High School when students decided to follow the example of Martin Luther King and his supporters throughout the South.  Those students are forever etched into the history of Rome, Georgia.

 

The 1963 sit-in was a dramatic event for a sleepy Southern town like Rome.  The students who decided to participate met one afternoon after school to organize a march to Broad Street in downtown Rome, where they planned to enter stores with lunch counters and order a soda.  Sixty students participated.

 

On March 28, 1963 they assembled after school and began their long walk from Main High, which was situated on what is now MLK Boulevard, to Broad Street.  The plan was to divide into small groups and enter about four or five retailers.  Then as each small group was potentially arrested the next group would immediately take its place.  Some stores closed their lunch counters.  At others, the waitresses began cleaning the counters with ammonia and water, making sure they slopped as much as possible on the students sitting quietly at the counter.  Still others didn’t address the students at all, so the protesters simply sat at the counters and read.

 

Throughout that afternoon, the students were arrested and brought to jail.  They stayed overnight with inadequate sleeping quarters, dirty blankets and nearly inedible food.  When finally brought to court, they were sentenced to jail, but were allowed to do their short amount of time over the weekends if they preferred because they were teenagers and in school.

 

In March the weather is chilly at night, but officials at the jail would turn on the air conditioning.  During the day when the temperature warmed up, they would turn on the heat.  There were some racial slurs from jailers and others; there were also a few kindnesses.  One of the speakers who talked about the march and sit-in at the Floyd event described her arresting officer as being particularly nice to her because she had been very polite when he arrested her.  In other accounts detailed in the manuscript, a custodian who was working during the students’ stay in jail, tried to tell them what to expect and how to prepare for it.

 

Parents of these teenaged inmates were divided.  Most of them had been raised in the Jim Crow South.  Certainly all the children had been.  Many of the parents were afraid to take a stand.  They had already seen the results of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, never mind speaking out against unfair laws.  But their children’s sense of justice was inspired by the words and actions of Martin Luther King and those who followed his teachings of non-violence.  Thus, they resolved among themselves – with or without the approval of their parents – to participate in the sit-in.

 

The following August the “I Had a Dream” speech would take place in Washington.  On September 15 the terrible bombings in a Birmingham church that killed three African-American children occurred.  There was a strong reason to feel frightened.  Police had wielded fire hoses that stripped the skin away.  Houses had been bombed or burned.  Violence prevailed throughout the South.  So the 100 teenagers who marched in Rome were quite brave.  They persevered despite their fear.

 

In the shadows of this time, several prominent white community leaders secretly met with the leaders of the black community to work on peaceful resolutions to the unrest that began to pervade Rome.  For a time they used a white church for these meetings, but eventually some of the church members learned of the meetings and protested.  So they moved to other quarters.  Among those who worked quietly and behind the scenes to move Rome and Floyd County (mostly kicking and screaming) toward a more equal footing between white and black were Jule Levin, an executive in one of Rome’s most popular department stores and president of the Chamber of Commerce, and his wife, Rose Esserman Levin.

 

Others included faculty members from Shorter and Berry Colleges; the president of Berry, Dr. John Bertrand; public school teachers and members of Rodeph Sholom Synagogue.

 

At a reception to honor participants in the Rome sit-in hosted by a Shorter faculty member, Rose Levin asked the English teacher from the all-black Main High School if she would ask her students to write about their experiences on that memorable March day.  She also asked if she could have the essays once they were finished and had been graded.  In her manuscript about the Civil Rights era in Rome, Levin wrote years later that she didn’t know what made her ask for them.  But she kept them all the same, even when she and her husband left her native Rome for Cincinnati, Ohio.  She and her husband picked them up many years later, after retirement, and devoted their time to organizing – and sometimes retrieving – their memories of the early 1960s.  The result was Rose Levin’s manuscript, Voices in Protest, which found its way to Georgia Highlands when the Levin’s daughter Anne set up a social justice and human rights scholarship in their memory.

 

In undertaking the research to write the manuscript, the Levins tried to track down some of the students who had participated in the 1963 sit-in without much success.  However, Rose Levin managed to have lunch with one of those students when she visited relatives in Rome the winter of 1991.  The former student was astonished to learn that the essays had been carefully and safely kept by this one family for years.

 

What made the discovery of this fact so interesting was that a few of those former students, including the three speakers at the Women’s History Month event, had been working to research and preserve an archive relating to the Civil Rights era in Rome.  When they searched old police records, however, they discovered that no arrest records existed for the 1963 sit-in.  They searched the state, too, but found no trace that the event had even happened.

 

So the discovery of those essays was a treasured and important find.  Here was indeed some documentation, and in the words of the participants themselves.  Rose and Jule Levin had left a more valuable legacy than they could possibly imagine.  Fifty years later minus a day, two of the participating students and the first black Berry student celebrated their parts in Rome history by relating their stories.  Levin’s manuscript will be given to each recipient of the Levin scholarship.  It will also soon be available in the GHC libraries and in the Hightower Library in Rome.

 

Below are some of the accounts taken directly from the essays written by the young black students.

 

Mary H. – Jail is not at all like it is in the movies.  There are four slabs that pass for beds.  The whole room was about the size of a small bathroom.  There was a toilet sitting in the corner and a basin. There were bars on the side facing the parking lot, and a corridor between the cells and the windows.  Steel divided the cells.  The back of my neck was swollen from leaning against them.  There was a light that burned all night.

 

Lonnie M. – About 6 o-clock I began to get hungry, and about an hour later we received what was called food.  The door was opened and the food was put on the floor.  We were told to get it, if we wanted it.  I put the food in my mouth, but could not swallow it.  One of my companions did eat.

 

Harry H. – It began getting hotter and hotter.  They turned on the heat and closed the windows.  It was so hot, some of the boys took off their shirts.  Then we found a broom, and with the broom handle we broke the latch, straightened the hanger, and opened the window.  But the captain came back and said, “Keep those damned windows closed.”  He locked them and left.  Just as we were about to unlock them again, the same officer came back, grabbed the broom, and said, “Now let’s see you open them.”  We made so much noise  that they finally told us, “If y’all quit all that yelling, we’ll let them stay open,” so in order to get a little air, we all got quiet.

 

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