New discoveries from the Local History collections illuminate a March 2, 1961 civil rights protest in Columbia that led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
On March 2, 1961 a group of some 187 students and young adults gathered at Zion Baptist Church in Columbia to demand greater civil rights for African Americans in the state of South Carolina. At that time, lunch counters, hotels, movie theaters, parks, and basically all places of business were permitted to discriminate against anyone on the basis of their race. The state did not have any laws to prevent this discrimination, and in fact even though Brown vs. Board of Education was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, there was still no movement on integrating the state’s public schools either. South Carolina was stuck in the past, mired in the Jim Crow era and its system of institutional discrimination. The state’s African Americans, and the youth, in particular, had had enough.
Following the rally at Zion Baptist, the youth and some adult leaders from the S.C. branch of the NAACP, marched from Washington Street to the State House. They carried signs demanding greater civil rights protections and admonishing the state’s leaders to pass laws to end segregation. They were well dressed and marched peacefully. However the fact that such a large group of young African Americans were gathered together with signs was frightening enough to the white citizens of the city that law enforcement was summoned and 187 were arrested for Breach of Peace.
On March 7, the youth and their lawyers entered the Richland County Court House in a case that came to be known as James Edwards, Jr. et al. vs. The State of South Carolina. Edwards just happened to be one of the first adults arrested of the group. The charge of breach of peace was upheld in court that day, but was appealed by the defendants’ lawyers Matthew Perry and Lincoln Jenkins. The case was again tried in the South Carolina Supreme Court but the convictions were upheld. It was eventually appealed to the United States Supreme Court, where South Carolina was found to be in the wrong because it had infringed upon the protestors’ rights of freedom of speech and assembly. At last the ruling was overturned and the charges against the youth were dismissed. A summary of the case can be found online here.
Recently we have discovered materials relating to these events in our collections in the Walker Local and Family History Center at Richland Library. Several photographs in the Local History Digital Collections show the march from Zion Baptist Church to the State House on March 2, 1961 as well as the lawyers and defendants entering the Richland County Court House on March 7. We also recently scanned the 1959-1961 Arrest Book from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. On pages 232A to 241B you can find a list of 164 names of those arrested for Breach of Peace.
And on several of these pages you can see a note that the conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
These tangible pieces of history are excellent ways to help us remember these events, and we hope that by sharing them online the young people of today can learn from those of the past.