Written by Tri-State Defender
The Walgreens at Madison and Main downtown will have some unusual visitors at noon on Friday (May 17) – 53 years after a sit-in there at the lunch counter.
Five students – Grace Austin, Parolee Holt, John Hooks, Willie Tom Miles and Stewart Truly – were arrested there that day in 1960. Only two – Austin (now Grace Austin Meacham) and John Hooks are still alive.
Meacham and some others involved in the sit-ins that pulsed through Memphis that year – beginning with the first on March 18, 1960 at McLellan's 5 and 10 cents store on Main Street – plan to revisit the Walgreens site.
"May 17th is a significant day in our history because that is the day the (U.S.) Supreme Court ruled (1954) in Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education (outlawing public school segregation)," said Meacham.
The story of the Memphis sit-ins has not been adequately chronicled, said Meacham. "There are no monuments to that movement and this is a movement that changed the segregated laws in the whole city, not just one place...Revisiting keeps the story (alive)."
Meacham has posters that feature her police record from that day, which she plans to take with her on Friday. On Thursday, she plans to reach out to Walgreens management and Walgreens headquarters.
In Memphis, 1960 was a banner year for sit-ins and lunch-counter demonstrations. A small group of Owen College students led the way with the sit-in at McLellan's on March 18. The police were called, the store was closed and the students left without being arrested.
The next day, 36 students from Owen College and LeMoyne College and five newsmen were arrested on city charges for public library sit-ins at two locations.
The sit-in at Walgreens on May 17, 1960 was accompanied by a similar sit-in that same day at the Woolworth lunch counter on Main Street. There were two females, Gloria Jean Story and Sadie Sawyer and two males, Woodrow Miller (deceased), and T.C. Heard.
At Walgreens, the store manager closed the store after the students were denied service but would not leave the counter. They remained seated almost three hours while quietly reading books before being arrested and taken to police headquarters. The students faced charges of disturbing the peace and conspiracy to interfere with trade and commerce, along with other charges such as disorderly conduct. Due to the state charges, the arrested students were sentenced to 30 days at the County Penal Farm. Eventually during the appeal trial, the charges were dropped.
It is important to note, said Meacham, that Walgreens opted to dismantle the lunch counter rather than integrate.
The Woolworth protests did not result in arrests, but the males were physically attacked and ejected by two white militants, she recalled. The females left when the store closed.
On Friday, the group visiting Walgreens will also visit the McLellan site, if time permits. Later during the year, they plan to re-visit other sites where sit-ins occurred during the movement.