by George M. Eberhart, courtesy of American Libraries
On the afternoon of July 16, 1960, eight African-American students bravely filed into the whites-only Greenville County (S.C.) Public Library and sat down in the reading room to look at newspapers and books. One of those students was a young Jesse Jackson—later to become famous as a civil rights activist and minister—who was home in Greenville on summer break from the University of Illinois.
Another of the students was Joan Mattison Daniel, a then-18-year-old freshman at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, who recently told American Libraries that “Jesse Jackson was responsible for our getting together to stage the sit-in. He had come home in January and needed a book to write a paper. The book was not at the colored branch library, a small, one-room house on East McBee Avenue.” Librarian Jeanette Smith told him it would take another six days to get the book he wanted, which would have been too late. “So Jackson went to the main library to look for it,” Daniel said. “He was told he could not use that library, and that was the beginning of it.” He vowed to come back in the summer.
The students had been to the library once before in the morning of July 16, but they had left when police arrived and told them to leave or they would be locked up. The Greenville Eight, as they were called (Jackson, Dorris Wright, Hattie Smith Wright, Elaine Means, Willie Joe Wright, Benjamin Downs, Margaree Seawright Crosby, and Daniel) had been counseled by the Rev. James S. Hall Jr., vice president of the South Carolina NAACP. They returned to Hall’s church, but he instructed them to go back, get a book, and sit down, Daniel recalls. “They would probably arrest us but, he said, don’t fear, we would be released.”
This time, they were determined to stay and face arrest. “Some of us got a book, and others browsed the shelves,” Daniel says. A handful of white patrons were in the library, but they soon left. The librarian, Charles E. Stow, asked them to leave, but they stayed and remained silent. Within a few minutes the police arrived and arrested all eight for disorderly conduct. Daniel says they were in jail about 15 minutes before African-American attorney Donald J. Sampson and Hall arrived. The court released each of them on $30 bond.
In August, blacks in Greenville staged sit-ins at the whites-only lunch counters at the Woolworth’s, H. L. Green, Grant’s, and S. H. Kress stores—all patterned after the demonstrations that took place in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1. Daniel also took part in the Woolworth’s sit-in. “We sat at the counter,” she says, “and one of the waitresses told us, ‘We don’t serve niggers.’ We said, ‘We didn’t order any.’”
On July 28, Sampson filed a lawsuit in US District Court for the Western District of South Carolina in an attempt to force the Greenville library system to desegregate its facilities. At the request of the mayor and city council, the library closed both its white and black branches on September 2 rather than risk court-ordered integration. Mayor J. Kenneth Cass released a statement: “The efforts being made by a few Negroes to use the White library will now deprive all White and Negro citizens of the benefit of a library.”
District Court Judge Charles Cecil Wyche held a hearing in Spartanburg on the lawsuit on September 13. The city library board argued that the litigation was moot because the library was closed. Wyche was forced to agree, saying, “I cannot make them open it and I cannot make them close it.” However, he did rule that if the library reopened and was again segregated, it would be liable to further discrimination lawsuits.
Cass received “several calls and letters” about the closed libraries and “almost all were in favor of reopening,” he claimed. This public pressure prompted him to reopen both Greenville libraries on September 19. Although he would not admit that the library was now integrated, the mayor’s statement implied as much: “The city libraries will be operated for the benefit of any citizen having a legitimate need for the libraries and their facilities. They will not be used for demonstrations, purposeless assembly, or propaganda purposes.”
Although Greenville was not the first library system to integrate in South Carolina (Columbia and Spartanburg had already done so without any controversy), it was the first to do so as a result of public demonstrations by the black community. The charges against the Greenville Eight were eventually dropped.
“This was an experience that I shall always remember,” Daniel told AL. “I am glad that I helped bring about desegregation. I feel that each generation is responsible for making their communities and surroundings a better place.”