Group’s commitment helped give birth to a new South
By Chinta Strausberg
It was 60 years ago this Thursday, July 16, when Jesse Jackson, Sr., along with seven other students were arrested after staging a sit-in at the whites-only Greenville Public Library in Greenville, S.C.
Their arrests soon captured the nickname “The Greenville Eight”—a social justice action that changed and chartered Jesse Jackson’s life as one of the world’s most long-distance civil rights activists—a man who was groomed by one of the greatest leaders this country has ever known—his mentor, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Born on October 8, 1941, in Greenville, South Carolina, Jackson was an outstanding student-athlete who graduated from the public schools in Greenville but who later turned down a contract to play baseball for the Chicago White Sox. Instead, he enrolled in the Big10 football powerhouse, the University of Illinois on a football scholarship.
Jackson came home on school break the Christmas of 1959, but he had to do some research; so he tried to go to Greeneville’s downtown main public library because its colored branch didn’t have the books he needed.
Rev. Jackson said this was during the time when colored people didn’t have the right to vote, didn’t have equal transportation, and it was a time when there were white and Black drinking fountains and separate toilets. Yet, young Jackson was shocked to learn that Blacks were barred from using that library only because of the color of their skin. He vowed to return and help end that racist policy.
Making good on his promise, Jackson returned and united with seven other students, now known as the Greenville 8, during his 1960 summer school break. “We broke the mold, and we were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct,” he recalled.
Jackson’s pastor, the Rev. James S. Hall, now 88, who baptized him and who was then vice president of the South Carolina NAACP, paid his bond, but the event caught the eye of the media, and the Greenville City Council closed both the main library and the poorly stocked one-room colored branch. Reportedly fearing a lawsuit, the City Council reopened both libraries.
In retrospect, Rev. Jackson said, “We were brought up under crippling, racist policies.” He said they were the victims of racism; however, “because we fought back and resisted, we have a different America today. Our standing up had an impact upon oppressed people around the world.”
The other students joining Jackson during that library showdown were: Dorris Wright, Hattie Smith Wright, Elaine Means, Willie Joe Wright, Benjamin Downs, Margaree Seawright Crosby and Joan Mattison Daniel.
Reached in Greenville, Dr. Crosby reflected on July 16, 1960. “We wanted to go to the downtown Greenville library. We knew that our parents had paid taxes so that we could use that library as well as anyone else. We were not able to go because we were Black.”
Crosby had just completed her freshman year at South Carolina State University located in Orangeburg, S.C. “We had demonstrated in downtown Orangeburg going to the lunch counters and the library. I remember marching downtown in Orangeburg with a group of hundreds of students, and they stopped us with the water hoses and tear gas.
“At that time, I felt terrible because we could not go downtown to the lunch counters and sit down,” Crosby said, explaining that these protests happened just before she came back home to Greenville for her summer break in July of 1960.
She said after meeting with Rev. Hall on a Saturday morning, they decided they would go to the downtown Greenville library and read a book. “We walked uptown to the library and sat down. The director told us to go upstairs. We went upstairs, very nice and polite, but they then told us we could not be in that library because it was not for us Black people.”
Crosby said they went back to the church where Rev. Hall was but when they told him what happened, she said Hall asked them why did they leave. When they told him that if they had not left, they would have been arrested, Hall told them, “maybe that is what we wanted them to do.”
The students went back to the library, selected a book and sat down, but within five or ten minutes the police arrived. “I remember one officer tapping me on the shoulders saying, “I am going to ask you three times to leave, and if you don’t, I will take you to jail, and he did just that. He did the same thing with the other seven.”
“We were arrested just for going to the library to read a book.” Crosby said it was an awful experience. She said two lawyers and a bondsman bailed them out of jail.
After their arrests, Crosby said their names and home addresses were published in the newspapers, and they began to get death threats and hate calls. “It was frightening, but we did what we had to do.”
“We went to court, but the judge threw the case out and opened the library for everybody; so within two weeks the library in downtown Greenville in 1960 was opened for everybody. I felt great.
“We won back in 1960, and I will never forget what happened that day. I was very proud of myself. This has been a part of my life for 60 years,” Crosby said.
She is now a professor emeritus at Clemson University where she taught elementary and early childhood education classes. When she and Jackson were high school students, that college was for whites only.
When Rev. Jackson was running for president, Crosby introduced him to her students. The library experience has been a light that has given her the hope and strength to strive for higher heights.
For Rev. Jackson, his first arrest also “triggered a whole dynamic for the world to see,” and it changed his life and mission to fight for equal rights and social justice for the downtrodden. “I thank God that I have been and still am a long-distance runner.”
Reflecting on that era, Rev. Jackson said, “The right to vote came in 1965 and that became the turning point. Once we got the right to vote, it took some years for us to overcome the fear of voting and it began to make way for a new South.”
Listing a string of accomplishments by Blacks, Rev. Jackson, who ran for the presidency in 1984 and 1988, said, “When the walls came down like the Dallas Cowboys in Dallas, we transformed the South and opened the doors.” His presidential run helped to increase Black voter registration, leading to the election of many Black candidates across the nation.
As we enter the new phase of the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Jackson said, “You see Blacks and whites marching together” after the Minneapolis police-related murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement that is being supported by Blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics across the nation. We’re learning how to live together,” Jackson said. “It’s a new South.”
“Racism is a crippling disease,” he said. “It is a sin. When laws change, behaviors change.”
Rev. Jackson is hosting a virtual town hall meeting at 2:00 p.m. (CST), Thursday, July 16, where the Greenville Eight students can reminisce about the day they took on a racist southern system and won five years before the bloody and deadly fight for the right to vote.