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February 14, 2013

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It seems unfair to lend the shortest month of the year to commemorate the history and achievements of black Americans. Most probably agree with actor Morgan Freeman when he said black history is American history, so a month will never be enough. Schools teach “white” history essentially every day, only mentioning black history when they reach the last few chapters in the textbook on the 1960s. But Chattanooga is making the most of those bold chapters by hosting many unique events, including the Tennessee State Museum’s traveling exhibit, “We Shall Not Be Moved—The 50th Anniversary of Tennessee’s Civil Rights Sit-ins,” an empowering and humanizing approach to the local evolution of the Civil Rights Movement.

This exhibit, on display at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center through the end of the month, tells this story, following four major phases of the movement: segregation and resistance, non-violence, Tennessee sit-ins and direct action.

While adults and college students were the primary activists in non-violent protests across the United States, high school students played a major role in the success of the Civil Rights Movement in Chattanooga. There were no historically black colleges or universities in the area at the time, so Howard High School students led the Chattanooga sit-ins after learning about protests in Greensboro, N.C., and Nashville. Graham Perry, curator of the exhibit, commented that these young people “provided the spark” necessary to fuel the fire of the local movement. And yet, it seems focus has been pulled away from these students’ amazing demonstrations, leaving their stories virtually untold—until now.

Progress wasn’t going to come over night, but the movement had to start somewhere. The weight of this task fell onto the shoulders of young people in the area, specifically those attending Howard High School. Two notable student leaders were class president Paul Walker, who encouraged students to get involved, and Lehman Pierce, who was the driving force behind the movement and left to continue with  the movement after the sit-ins were over. Students were briefed on what to do and what not to do at sit-ins. The checklist included reminders “to be on your best behavior,” leave seats between each other at the lunch counter, try to make a small purchase and no profanity, weapons or loud talking. Tough rules to follow, considering the opposition.

Age is certainly an interesting factor in the Howard student narrative, but even more significant is how they organized almost entirely without adult supervision. At a Feb. 5 forum held at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, former Howard student Moses Freeman mentioned there was no adult leadership because they feared adults wouldn’t support their children doing something that could have them incarcerated—or worse. Even within the community, activism was not too popular.

“We didn’t want to disappoint our parents, but we were willing to break the law if we had to,” Freeman said. At this, one participant laughed and said, “Virgil’s parents didn’t even know [he was involved] till he was grown.”

Freeman pointed out that black students had nearly accepted the teaching that it was “better to be a second-class citizen in America than a first-class citizen in Russia. But the sit-ins changed that.” Eddie Holmes added, “We had a desire to do something, but we didn’t know exactly what.”  

“Nobody had ever asked before, but now you are,” said Holmes, when I asked his opinion. After hearing that, I finally understood what they meant by the “young generation” taking everything for granted, regardless of skin color. As a reporter and human being, I thought nothing of asking this gentleman for his opinion. My university, UTC, is wonderfully diverse and students probably aren’t heckled for being seen with someone of another color. To the new young generation, this is natural. We possess the privilege all young people enjoy, that sense of limitless possibilities and the bliss of having never known the difference. However, this wasn’t always the case—students a few years younger than I am now participated in a massive social movement and brought about the changes that allow us to live so comfortably.

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February 14, 2013

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