Memoir Concerning the Greensboro Students

by Gene Theroux

 

I am not an expert on the subject. Far from it. I am a "Johnny One-Note" with a single little story to tell. But I think it is an interesting one. Here it is: During 1959-1960, while I was a college student in New York, I served as the Chairman of the Metropolitan New York Region of the U.S. National Student Association (USNSA). The "sit-ins" occurred during that period of time, as you know. In the spring of 1960, I organized a city-wide demonstration and picket line of university students in front of the F.W. Woolworth store at Herald Square, followed by a march down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square, for a rally, all in support of the sit-ins. One result of that activity was an invitation to me to meet at Harry Belafonte's apartment in New York, together with about a dozen "leaders", to plan further such activities. I was told that several of the young men who had started the sit-ins, in North Carolina, would join us at the meeting. I went to the meeting. Harry Belafonte hosted the session. Those present included A. Philip Randolph, then the President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Bayard Rustin, among others. Before the arrival of the young men from North Carolina, Belafonte and others present (I was the only white person) railed very angrily against Southern racism and President Eisenhower. To the approval of the others present, he urged a series of actions in New York to draw attention to the sit-ins. He castigated the do-nothing Eisenhower administration. Suggestions included mass sit-ins in New York, marches, rallies, and massive fund-raising, and more imaginative schemes, such as placing a black arm band on the arm of the Statue of Liberty, etc. Our group was getting quite agitated and angrier by the minute, when the doorbell rang. Mr. Belafonte "buzzed" the door of the apartment house open, and soon several young black men came into the room to join our meeting. They were all about my age. They were awe-struck to be meeting Harry Belafonte, and some of the other well known black leaders, and they seemed very, very shy. They had never been to New York. They had come straight from North Carolina. Mr. Belafonte introduced the people present, and gave a passionate, angry speech about the discrimination and indignities that Negroes were suffering in America, etc etc. He outlined for the North Carolina guests some of the ideas that had been discussed in our group, before their arrival. He added that we all had read about the sit-ins, and he asked the young men to please tell us what it was like, at those lunch counters, to have coffee, Cokes or ketchup dumped on their heads and down their necks, and to be pushed, and shoved, and spit on. There was a long, awkward silence. Then one of those young men, the first one to speak, said this: "Mr. Belafonte, thank you. I think it would be a good idea for us, for all of us, to kneel down now, and pray." The boys knelt first. Everyone else followed them, and knelt down on Mr. Belafonte's carpet. And one of those boys prayed a prayer that I remember had everyone staring at the floor, dumbstruck, and many in the room choking back tears. I don't remember the words of the prayer. I do remember that the young man asked us all to pray for God's grace and strength to black men and women who were engaged in the sit-ins, and in other forms of non-violent civil disobedience, as they silently endured abuse, humiliation, pain, and the presence of hate, and evil, "in Jesus' name, Amen." Well, it was a memorable event for me. I thought of this event when I read through the documents that were part of Jean-Paul's homework assignment. From those early months of 1960, and during the remaining years of the 1960s, I had some further involvement with the civil rights movement. . . .

Sincerely,

Gene Theroux (Father of J.P.GP'2004)