Almost hidden from the public behind a main stair case in the large James E. Shepard Library at North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C., is what remains from Durham’s F. W. Woolworth lunch counter. The formica counter top, the bright orange plastic seats, and the chromium spokes that made up the back of the seats look out of date in the modern library building. My Ethics and English’ classes begin at this historic point in the civil-rights movement: the sit-in at Durham’s Woolworth lunch counter on February 8, 1960. Durham’s anti-segregation sit-in followed a similar protest in Greensboro a week earlier. Organized by the NAACP chapter at North Carolina College (now NCCU), students Lacy Streeter, Callis Brown, Robert Kornegay. The sit-in got the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Rev. David Abernathy, who came to visit Durham’s Woolworth’s lunch counter on Feb. 16. The store closed the counter after the sit-in demonstration and the students moved on to protest at other stores. On Feb. 16, Dr. King preached at Durham’s White Rock Baptist Church, delivering the famous “Fill Up the Jails” speech, in which he advocated non-violent confrontation with segregationists for the first time in the South.
The sit-ins of Woolworth lunch counters spread from Greensboro and Durham, N.C., throughout the Southeast. In Lee Daniel’s movie, “The Butler”, one powerful scene took place in a Woolworth building in Tennessee, with the re-enactment of the violent reaction against African American young people simply sitting non-violently in the “white’s only” section of the lunch counter. In his “Letters from a Birmingham Jail,” King himself refers to the power of the simple non-violent sit-in movement as a way to combat racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Ala., and other cities in the South (April 16, 1963).
My lessons from the Durham sit-in exhibit are three fold. First, LGBTQ individuals, parents, and our families face the same evil that is bred in the marrow of the bones of racists. It is more than mere intolerance against us because we are “different” than our heterosexual peers. In the fight for marriage equality in the past few years in N.C., I witnessed expressions of evil that took my breath away, whether it was done with a smile and a wink or with an angry email or anonymous letter I received in the mail. Racism and homophobia spring from the same root of the same tree: evil. Second, it is often in simple wordless gestures — like sitting down at a lunch counter where people were not welcomed because of their skin color — that paints the easiest picture for all to see of what injustice looks and sounds like. I am all for LGBTQ couples going up to the desks of county clerks and asking for a marriage license and then staging a silent sit-in when we don’t get one because of the parties that wish to wed. Such actions make a simple point: this act of withholding marriage to two consenting adults who love each other is immoral. Last lesson: what I tried to do in this space for the last few years is talk about not only our rights as LGBTQ parents, but our relationships with those whom we love. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote: “power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” As a parent who is a person of faith, a teacher, a pilgrim, gay and a writer, my hope throughout the years of writing this column is that I have encouraged other LGBTQ parents to speak up and out when we experience small and large signs of evil against us and our families. I also hope that I have lifted up the beauty borne of the love we have for the significant people in our lives in our families, no matter what the configuration may be. At the end of the day, what matters most are the relationships that teach us love. After all, those who sat at a lunch counter throughout the Southeast in 1960 simply wanted the freedom to sit down with the ones they love, like we do too, regaling each other with ordinary stories of extraordinary lives. What we are all learning is this: at the end of the struggle, no matter what evil throws in front of us, love will persevere and remain vibrant and full at the end of day. : :