On a crisp February morning in 1960, Hattie Ann Walker put on her new suit with the sailor collar, fixed her hair, and joined a group of fellow Johnson C. Smith University students for the four-mile walk to downtown Charlotte to take part in the first of what would become many sit-ins around the city.
As the students approached the city center, they began to catch sight of the establishments that refused to treat them as equals — Kress’s five and dime, where they could buy hot dogs but not sit down to eat them; Belk’s department store, where the only restrooms they could use were in the basement; the palatial Carolina Theater, where they were not allowed at all.
Walker struggled to look cheerful, but inside she was trembling. “I knew that it was something I wanted to do, and I should do,” she explained. “But in spite of that, I was afraid. I was really afraid.”
The Charlotte Sit-Ins Begin
Her group headed to Woolworth’s and sat down at the counter. As they waited, a photographer snapped the picture that would become the icon of the Charlotte sit-ins, capturing the students at the height of the civility that was their greatest weapon. Well-dressed, well-behaved and exuding quiet dignity, the students exposed the absurdities of segregation for everyone to see. At the center of the image, Hattie Walker looked calmly at the camera.
While men usually assumed the public roles of speaking and negotiating, women were at the heart of the sit-in demonstrations. Women marched and strategized, suffered blows and insults, defied the law and went to jail.
“You don’t hear our voices very much,” noted Edith Strickland DeLaine, who helped plan the Charlotte sit-ins. “But you cannot look at a picture and not see a female in it.”
With their courageous actions, these young women transformed Charlotte. They also transformed themselves. Sitting in her gracious living room in 2003, dressed in a trim suit and with every hair in place, Hattie Walker looked every bit the lady that she was when caught on film decades before. But she was not the same inside.
“I was afraid every time I marched. I really was,” she explained. “I was a person that was afraid of doing things. But that sit-in demonstration taught me a lesson. I figured if I could get through that, then I could weather the storm with other things. I’m not afraid anymore.”
Lessons from the Past
While the sit-ins sought a sharp break with an unjust past, the strategy drew heavily on the students’ own upbringing, and on the lessons Black colleges had taught for generations. Most students had been raised to be disciplined, religious and respectful.
They also shared a strong sense of self-worth and moral determination. All those qualities would serve them well as they faced the hostility their action would at times provoke.
The roles that women played reflected similar continuities. An effective sit-in required a balance between action and response. In the face of physical threats, men could serve as protectors. But violence from whites was not the main concern. A successful sit-in depended on students’ ability to remain calm, to offer a sharp contrast to the injustice of segregation and the violent outbursts that demonstrations could provoke. It was not an easy task.
Edith DeLaine believed the presence of women helped to tamp down emotion on both sides. “I think a lot more men would have been killed if women had not been present,” she stated. “Women sort of keep a calm. Even in a segregated society — a very mean segregated society — the women can cause calm.”
Women could also defuse potential confrontations. “In our Black families there’s a thing they call ‘the eye,’” DeLaine explained. “Parents can look at you — especially women. And when they give you the eye, you know that you need to change something in your behavior. Our eyes tell a story. And during the movement, I think we used it a lot.”
Lessons for the Future
For some young women, defying segregation also meant a step toward independence. Betty Houchins Lundy learned this lesson after she took part in one of the students’ most daring actions.
One day, the sit-in organizers learned that the owner of Ivey’s department store had declared that no African American would ever eat a meal in his lunchroom. They asked Lundy and fellow student Thomas Wright, both of whom had extremely light skin, to prove him wrong. With some trepidation, Lundy agreed. She and Wright headed for the Ivey’s lunchroom, were seated, and ate an uneventful meal.
When the two students joined their protesting companions outside the store, the indignant reaction their ruse provoked sparked enough furor to make the evening news, which Lundy’s parents watched in horror.
“My parents were against this because they were so used to their way of life,” Lundy explained. “They were used to one way of life, Blacks in one place and whites in one place. They saw this on television, and my father became very afraid. He told my mother to tell me to stay out of that white man’s store.”
Faced with their parents’ disapproval, some students downplayed their involvement. Others, however, argued back. Mary Anna Neal Bradley’s parents were among those who objected. But she felt she could stand firm because “they also brought us up to do the right thing. Although we were sheltered, we were brought up: ‘If you’re going to do something, do it right.’”
The sit-in campaign required months of patience and determination. Store owners and city officials stalled, dissembled, and offered excuse after excuse. But the young people’s resolve, backed by a broader Black boycott of the stores in question, finally forced owners to relent.
Those first meals were memorable. “When we could finally sit down to eat, we were given money by various organizations so we could go down to eat,” Hattie Walker remembered. “And that was so rewarding. I got a big Coca-Cola. In the cup — a fountain drink. And the only thing I’d had was Coke from a bottle. So I wanted the fountain drink. That was a special moment to get that Coke from that fountain.”
“I knew in my heart that this was something that I wanted to do,” she concluded. “And I knew that if we were able to accomplish the goal, that this was something that not only I would benefit from but my children and my grandchildren would also benefit. I just knew it was the right thing to do.”
Parts of this article appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer in 2003.