This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Jackson, Mississippi, Woolworth lunch counter sit-in, the day that produced one of the most powerful images of the civil rights movement.
In a shot taken May 28, 1963, Jackson Daily News photographer Fred Blackwell captured for the world not so much the brutality, as the cruelty, of Jim Crow segregation. (There was plenty of brutality that day, too, as at least one young black man was beaten to the point of concussion).
The picture known to all of us shows three people, a male professor and two female college students, seated at the lunch counter and surrounded by a mob of young white men who appear to be in their late teens and early twenties. Most of the men are seen jeering or laughing. One is portrayed as dumping the remainder of a jar of sugar onto the head of one of the young women at the counter. The three victims are covered in sugar, ketchup and mustard.
Also in May of 1963, my family moved to Mississippi from southern California. My Dad worked for Chevron (then Standard Oil) at the newly commissioned refinery in Pascagoula. We lived in a little house in Moss Point. I was six years old.
I knew nothing of the Woolworth lunch counter melee, nor of the assassination of Medgar Evers in June of 1963, nor of the Freedom Riders. I did not know about Martin Luther King’s history-making and life-changing speech later that summer in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Not until I was a teen did I realize that my boyhood was notable if for no other reason than that it tracked the Civil Rights Movement almost perfectly – I was born in 1957, the year Eisenhower ordered troops to protect the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School, and turned 13 in 1970, the year full desegregation of the public schools was finally implemented in Mississippi under the direct order of the United States Supreme Court.
I had the opportunity to grow up in a bi-racial, middle class community of folks who mostly worked at blue collar jobs in a highly industrialized county. I went to a high school that was close to evenly mixed in its black/white student population. And I played high school football on a team that was a community rallying point for everyone in our community, regardless of race.
Racial issues in our town were not absent, but they were also not dominant during my teen years. My friends and teammates and I were expected to demonstrate basic civility and citizenship, but not raw moral courage.
But as an adult, I have thought a lot about what was happening in our state and nation when I was a little boy.
And I have wondered, if the hottest points of the civil rights era had been in the mid-70’s, when I was a teen, rather than the mid-60’s, when I was so young, how I would have reacted.
Would I have had the moral courage to do right and to stand against wrong had I been old enough to realize at the time what was going on around me?
I hope so.
I hope I have that kind of courage now.
I hope we all do.
Andy Taggart is an attorney with Taggart, Rimes & Graham law firm in Jackson. He is a highly regarded attorney, political, business and community leader. He is a cum laude graduate of Tulane University, where he served on the law school editorial board. He also serves on the Board of Trustees of Mississippi College. A long-time presence in governmental policy and political arenas, he is a frequent speaker at major events and has been involved in a wide range of activities, from serving as CEO of the Mississippi Technology Alliance to chief of staff for the late Governor Kirk Fordice. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org