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58 Years Later, Alabama Clears the Records of 29 Black Students Who Protested Segregation

The students sat down at the courthouse lunch counter in a non-violent demonstration

Sign outside white lunch counter in county courthouse building Montgomery, Alabama, in 1960. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
smithsonian.com

In February 1960, a group of 29 black students from Alabama State College sat down at a lunch counter in the snack room of the Montgomery County Courthouse. In the segregated South, this was an act of radical protest. And as punishment for their defiance, Alabama’s governor ordered that 20 of the students be placed on academic probation. The remaining nine, believed to be the leaders of the protest, were expelled.

Some 58 years since that lunch counter sit-in, Alabama officials are correcting the record. As John Sharp reports for AL.com, last month interim education superintendent Ed Richardson expunged the files of the students who had been disciplined for their role in the protest.

In a letter dated May 10, Richardson also cleared the records of four faculty members who were “forced out of the College on an unsubstantiated charge of disloyalty” in 1960.

“The actions taken by the Alabama State Board of Education against Alabama State College students, faculty members and officials were unjustified and unfair,” the letter reads. “They represent a time in the history of the State Board that must be acknowledged and never repeated.”

The Alabama sit-in took place amid a wave of similar protests across the Jim Crow South. That first sit-in was organized in North Carolina, just a few weeks before the Alabama protest, when four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State took a seat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter; the next day, around two dozen black students joined in the protest.

“By the end of the month, sit-ins had taken place at more than 30 locations in 7 states, and by the end of April over 50,000 students had participated,” according to Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

Like the other sit-ins, the protest at the Montgomery County Courthouse was non-violent; the students politely but firmly refused to leave when police officers arrived on the scene and threatened them with arrest. None of the protestors were jailed at the time, but Alabama governor John Patterson demanded that the president of Alabama State College, a historically black institution, take action against them.

The protestors carried their marred academic records with them for nearly six decades. Then in February of this year, Sharp of AL.com reports, Derryn Moten, chairman of the history and political science department at Alabama State University in Montgomery, drafted a resolution asking the State Board of Education "to admit it unfairly punished the students and faculty members without due process, and to show contrition for the activities that took place in 1960." The interim superintendent went a step further, formally expunging the students’ records.

Today, just three of the nine students who were expelled from Alabama State College in 1960 are alive: James McFadden, St. John Dixon and Joseph Peterson. Their feelings about officials’ efforts to clear their records are somewhat muddled.

“I’m happy that it’s happened,” 78-year-old McFadden tells Matthew Haag of the New York Times, “but I’m not sure what to do with it.”

Dixon, now 80, is more pointed in his response: “It took 50 years before they said they were sorry and that they knew it was wrong,” he tells Haag.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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