Remembering History: The Charleston Movement

Charleston activism is not a new concept in the Lowcountry with roots stemming from the Civil Rights Movement. On April 1, 1960, twenty-four students from Burke High School orchestrated the first sit-in in the historic district. The Kress building sit-in demonstrated a peaceful protest against segregated lunch counters. The black high school students sat at the whites-only counter where they were refused service and asked to leave. When Kress’ staff removed empty seats, poured ammonia on the bar surface, and called in a false bomb threat, the young protesters stood their ground and remained at the lunch counter. After five hours, Charleston police arrested the high school demonstrators for trespassing. NAACP leader Arthur Brown paid the students’ bail for their bravery to stand up against the city’s oppressive Jim Crow laws.

Modeled after the Greensboro sit-in earlier that year, the protest has shown how impactful the actions of students are to the Civil Rights Movement. Because of the limited resources for higher education in the Lowcountry, most of the work was done by high school students. Three more sit-in demonstrations took place at the Kress’ “five and dime” establishment later that summer in order to fight for equality for black Charlestonians. Notable Kress protesters Harvey Gantt, Minerva Brown, and Millicent Brown continued this activism work in the education field. Gantt became the first African American student admitted to Clemson University and the first mayor of Charlotte in 1983. His fight for equity for the African American community remains strong through the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture in Charlotte. He believes philanthropy and supporting black culture by black individuals can help move progress forward within the community.

Sisters Minerva and Millicent Brown are the daughters of former NAACP president Arthur Brown. The passion for activism was instilled in the Browns at an early age as they were both involved in the Brown vs. Charleston County School District 20 case to integrate schools in the Lowcountry. The Court ruled in favor of the Browns stating segregation in Charleston schools were unlawful according to the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Later that year, Millicent Brown became one of the first African American students to integrate Charleston schools at Rivers High School in 1963. She attended the College of Charleston and The Citadel to earn degrees in History and Education. She is now a Senior Research Fellow and Associate Professor at Claflin University.

The power of local protest can ignite a change in the community. Organizations like Charleston Black Lives Matter, the Charleston branch of the NAACP, and the Charleston Activist Network, advocate for black Americans here and beyond. Using your voice to speak out against injustices you have noticed or experienced at work, in schools, or even in the community can continue the momentum of black advocacy. To learn how to get more involved with local activist groups, check out the following organizations to join the fight for equality.

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