The Savannah Protest Movement

This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Tykeia Vines as part of her SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2015.

The Georgia Civil Rights Trail: The Savannah Protest Movement historical marker was dedicated in 2016. View The Georgia Civil Rights Trail: The Savannah Protest Movement historical marker listing.

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1. Sit-in at McCrory’s, March 23, 1961. Courtesy of Savannah Morning News.

2. Downtown protest from early 1960s. Date unknown. Courtesy of Savannah Morning News.

3. Subway (Previous Site of F.W. Woolworth Co.), 2016. Courtesy of Tykeia Vines.

4. GAP (Previous site of S. H. Kress Co.), 2016. Courtesy of Tykeia Vines.

5. Levy’s Department Store, March 17, 1961. Courtesy of Savannah Morning News.

6. Jen Library (Previous Site of Levy’s Department Store). Courtesy of Tykeia Vines.

7. Protester being asked to leave the Azalea Room in Levy’s Department Store, March 1960. Courtesy of Ross Parsons of Savannah Morning News.

8. Gutstein Gallery (Previous Site of the Azalea Room in Levy’s Department Store), 2016. Courtesy of Tykeia Vines.

9. Carolyn Q. Coleman, Ernest Robinson, Jr. and Joan Hall leaving jail, March 1961. Courtesy of Savannah Morning News.

10. Protester and police on Broughton St., April 16, 1960. Courtesy of Savannah Morning News.

11. Groves High School, 2016. Courtesy of Tykeia Vines.

12. The Savannah Protest Movement Historical Marker, 2016. Courtesy of Tykeia Vines.

The following essay is by SCAD student Tykeia Vines, 2017.

Rationale:

Growing up in North Carolina, I was very familiar with the Greensboro Four, the students who sat in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. I chose this marker because I wanted to know if the sit-in at Levy’s Department Store had as profound an impact on the Civil Rights Movement in Savannah as the one in North Carolina.

Historical Background

By 1964 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to visit Savannah, he called it the most desegregated city in the South. This was largely in part to the work of hundreds of teenagers and young adults who protested and boycotted during the Civil Rights Movement. Not only did the students boycott Broughton St. and hold sit-ins at local restaurants and department store lunch counters (Figure 1), but they also held wade-ins on the segregated beaches at Tybee Island, kneel-ins at white churches, ride-ins on buses, and stand-ins at movie theaters.[i]  They fought for equality in all aspects of life.

The NAACP and the Youth Council

Dr. Ralph Mark Gilbert, President of the Savannah chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), from 1942-1950, spent much of his time trying to recruit the younger generation of African Americans in Savannah to join the Civil Rights Movement. He therefore formed the Youth Council of Savannah, which by 1943 became the largest of any NAACP branch in the country.[ii] The first thing on Dr. Gilbert’s agenda was voter registration because many African Americans believed that this was the first step in initiating change and gaining equal rights. Members of the Youth Council helped people to pass the voter registration test, a difficult exam designed to prevent black people from voting, and also drove them to the courthouse so that they could register to vote.[iii]

Dr. Gilbert’s successor, Westley Wallace Law, joined the NAACP Youth Council as a high school student. By 1946, he was the new president of the Youth Council while still a student at Savannah State College (now Savannah State University.)[iv] As a member of the Youth Council, Law was one of the students responsible for helping black people in Savannah register to vote. He said, “Membership [in] the Youth Council became a badge of honor and practically every student in the school joined.” Under the presidency of W.W. Law, membership in the Youth Council grew to 650 members by 1961 thanks to high school chapters, theater parties, and slogans like: “We need the youth, the youth need us. Join us!”[v] One important task of the Youth Council was teaching students how to protest. Sit-in rules included: “Don’t strike back if cursed or abused,” and “Remember love and nonviolence.” Students also put on a play in order to teach protesters how to act during sit-ins.[vi]

One member of the NAACP Youth Council was former Savannah mayor, Edna Jackson, who says that her training and involvement in the NAACP taught her how to handle certain situations as the mayor. Jackson says that she was mesmerized by her mentor W.W. Law and inspired by the Youth Council to join the protest movement. She joined the NAACP at nine years old. By fifteen she was arrested and spent the night in jail for participating in a wade-in at segregated Tybee beach, and by eighteen she was leading an integrated group of kids from Tampa, Florida to the March on Washington to witness Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. When asked how it felt to be part of such an important movement at such a young age, she says, “You didn’t think about your age. You just felt like this is the right thing to do.”[vii]

Student Sit-ins, Boycotts, and Protests

During the 1950s and early 1960s, there were many student-led Civil Rights protests occurring across the country. The most prominent sit-in occurred on February 1, 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Four students from North Carolina A&T State University went to F. W. Woolworth department store, purchased some items, and then attempted to order food at the lunch counter. After being refused service, they stayed until closing, but returned the next day with twenty-five additional protesters. By the fifth day, there were over 300 supporters taking turns sitting at the lunch counter. By the end of 1960, over one hundred sit-ins had taken place in the south.[viii]

Another such protest occurred on March 16, 1960 in Savannah, Georgia. Led by W. W. Law and the NAACP, the Savannah Protest Movement began. Inspired by the events that took place in Greensboro, students sat in at Levy’s Department Store, Silvers 5₵ and 10₵, McCrory’s, Kress, Livingston’s Drug Store, Walgreens, W.T. Grant’s, and Woolworth’s (Figure 3). Some of the lunch counters closed as soon as the protesters sat down, and at other times they were turned away by the police. Protesters were armed with signs that said things like, “We want a mouthful of freedom!” and “You can buy a $50 suit, but not a 10₵ cup of coffee” (Figure 2). Benjamin West, who sat in at Kress (Figure 4) was spat on and even had his jaw broken while peacefully protesting.[ix] Ernest Robinson, Joan Tyson, and Carolyn Quilloin, three of the protesters who sat in at the Azalea Room at Levy’s, were arrested after shopping around the store and being refused service when they sat down at the lunch counter (Figures 5-9). Even though they were young, the students knew of the dangers of protesting, but still had the courage to stand up for what they believed was right. Carolyn Quilloin Coleman, who was a senior in high school at the time of her arrest, says, “…We were very familiar with what happened to Emmet Till, a 15-year-old student who was killed in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white girl across the street. While we thought that we were safe in Savannah, we knew that anything could happen.”[x] Ernest Robinson had a Bible verse written on his hand that he looked at repeatedly. The protesters also sang, “We Shall Overcome,” a gospel song that soon became one of the anthems for the Civil Rights Movement.[xi]

Even though black people were allowed to shop in these department stores and work as cooks or waiters, they were not allowed to eat with white people or use the same bathrooms, water fountains, and fitting rooms (Figure 10). As a teenager, George Shinhoster, one of the nineteen students who desegregated Groves High School  in 1963, worked at Anton’s, an Italian restaurant on Broughton St. that did not serve blacks (Figure 11). Shinhoster said that he would picket during the day and go back to work at the same restaurant at night.[xii] By the time he and his classmates started the 1963-64 school year at Groves High School, they were no strangers to protests and were fully prepared for the hate and taunting that they would endure from their new classmates. The desegregation of schools was a huge part of the Civil Rights Movement. Students endured spitballs, harassing phone calls, racial slurs, and having food thrown at them. They were even booed as they received their diplomas. Sage Brown, another of the students that integrated Groves High School says of the movement, “It was not the adults. It was young people. It was a street movement and it gave us a chance to be involved.”[xiii]

Student Activism in the 21st Century

The Civil Rights Movement sparked an interest in student activism that is still being expressed today. In a 2005 Savannah Morning News article, Walter Stern interviewed five black male students in Savannah about activism and Civil Rights. The article features pictures of the five students with the heading, “The Future of Civil Rights Activism.”[xiv] In the article, the students discuss how they think the protests that occurred in the past are no longer necessary because America is moving more towards equality and the best form of activism is receiving an education. Unfortunately, black people in America are still fighting for equality, which can be seen through the Black Lives Matter movement. Many college students across the country have become activists by holding sit-ins, die-ins, and other types of protests to speak out against police brutality and show support for the victims. In 2013, Savannah State students reenacted the March on Washington, but held signs that relayed the issues they were fighting for in the present day, like more scholarships and Pell Grants.[xv] Television and film are also being used today as outlets for political and social activism. Shows like Netflix’s Dear White People promote student activism and the fight against social injustice. Jim Haskins’ children’s book, Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights not only provides a historical account into the life of W.W. Law, but it teaches children how to peacefully protest and fight for what they believe in. In today’s age, there are many ways for teenagers and young adults to become activists and many causes for them to support.

[i] Martha Keber, “The Struggle for Civil Rights in Savannah,” in Freedom’s March (Georgia: Telfair Books, 2008), 12.

[ii] Ibid., 10.

[iii] Jim Haskins, Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights (Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2005).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Keber, 10.

[vi] Exhibit at Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum.

[vii] Edna Branch Jackson, interview by author, Savannah, May 18, 2017.

[viii] Allen Pusey, “Students Spark Civil Rights Sit-Ins,” ABA Journal 100, no. 2 (2014): 72.

[ix] Keber, 11.

[x] Dash Coleman, ”Heroes of Savannah’s fight to desegregate honored with new marker,” The Savannah Morning News (Savannah, GA), September 24, 2016.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] “They Answered the Call: George Shinhoster,” Savannah Morning News (Savannah, GA), February 4, 2001. Georgia Historical Society Vertical Files: African Americans – Civil Rights – Savannah.

[xiii] Keber, 13-14.

[xiv] Walter Stern, “A Movement of One: Black students envision equality through individual rather than mass, efforts,” Savannah Morning News (Savannah, GA), February 27, 2005. Georgia Historical Society Vertical Files: African Americans – Civil Rights – Savannah.

[xv] Marcus E. Howard, “Former mayor: Fight definitely is not over,” Savannah Morning News (Savannah, GA), August 29, 2013. Georgia Historical Society Vertical Files: African Americans – Civil Rights – Savannah.

Haskins, Jim. Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2005.

Pusey, Allen. “Students Spark Civil Rights Sit-Ins.” ABA Journal 100, no. 2 (2014): 72.

Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum

Telfair Museum of Art. Freedom’s March: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement in Savannah by Frederick C. Baldwin. Georgia: Telfair Books, 2008.