Locals recall 1963 civil rights sit-in at WR lunch counter

WARNER ROBINS -- A hamburger and Coke.

For most of the 17 black college students who sat at a lunch counter in Warner Robins 48 years ago, it was the order that sparked a civil rights sit-in.

“You knew that something was going to happen, you just didn’t know what,” said Daron Lee Sr., one of the 17. ”But you were willing to take the chance.”

Though advocates say the turmoil sometimes associated with the civil rights movement was uncommon in Warner Robins, the area adhered to segregation laws. It was a time when facilities were labeled “Colored” and “White.” Jim Crow laws legally separated schools, bathrooms, faucets, bus seating and even jail cells.

Dr. Dawn Herd-Clark, a professor at Fort Valley State University, which became a university in 1996, said black people eventually decided it was time to desegregate, but not all black people joined in because such rebellion could bring financial or bodily harm.

“Most black folks did not participate (in the civil rights movement),” she said. “It takes someone very courageous to do that.”

On October 19, 1963 -- less than a year before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race or sex -- local students decided it was their turn to join the national stand against separate but unequal lifestyles.

“There were a lot of demonstrations then, around the nation,” Lee said. “We figured it was time to do things.”

Joining the fight

The students were youth members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the organizations that spearheaded the civil rights movement.

The Warner Robins chapter received its charter only a month before then-chapter President Sammy Smith and the students devised a plan to fully integrate Liggett’s Drug Store. Black people could buy anything in the store but were not allowed to eat at the lunch counter, a staple in drug stores at the time.

“We felt we had the right to sit down and eat, even though segregation did not permit that,” Lee said.

The stage for what those involved believe to be the first sit-in in Warner Robins was located in the back corner of Williams Plaza Shopping Center, near the intersection of Watson Boulevard and Houston Road.

The cast consisted of 17 students at Fort Valley State College, as FVSU was known then, the Warner Robins Police Department and an unknowing store manager. The backdrop included civil rights activists marching along Watson Boulevard.

“None of the adults went in because we knew we were going to need someone to bond us out,” said Margaret Sanks-Hobes, who was 17 at the time and hadn’t told her father of the plan.

The students drove to the parking lot. Unsure of what to expect, they split into groups of four and five since the lunch counter had limited seating.

“We didn’t want them to have any reason to say they couldn’t serve us,” Sanks-Hobes said. “They had room.”

The first group included Lee, who was the youth president of the NAACP chapter, and Sanks-Hobes, who was the youth vice president. They walked into the drugstore, sat down and ordered.

“We all knew we were going to jail,” Lee said. “We knew that we probably would not get served.”

With their backs to the door and whatever was to come, the group demanded their lunch order.

“(Warner Robins police officers) testified the demonstrators argued with a waitress and the manager of the store and insisted they wanted to be served,” reads a Nov. 7, 1963, article in The Telegraph about the first court hearing for the 17.

“The officers said the manager asked the sit-iners to leave and then the officers asked them to leave before they were placed under arrest.”

For about 20 minutes, each group followed the same routine. They entered, ordered, refused to leave and were arrested.

According to the 1963 article, manager Robert Worth testified that “no one said anything out of place.”

“We had been trained to be non-violent,” Sanks-Hobes said.

Of course, that didn’t stop 19-year-old Lee from pushing the limits. He put a quarter in the jukebox while “waiting” to be served.

After 17 students were arrested, the owners shut down the drug store for the day. According to Sanks-Hobes, at least 20 more students were prepared to sit-in.

Some of the 17 recently recalled the episode with the clarity of yesterday.

Sanks-Hobes said the group was put on an “ol’ raggedy bus” to the city jail, where they spent the rest of the day. The charge was trespassing and disorderly conduct, according to the 1963 article.

“The store is not integrated,” Worth plainly said at the November 1963 hearing.

Lee said the students were eventually transferred “to the big jail in Perry.” There, he said, they were served pork and beans, and cornbread, but none touched the cold beans and days-old bread.

“But, the next morning, people were so hungry that we began to eat it,” Lee said with a chuckle.

After two days, they were released.

“They gave us a real meal” at Springfield Baptist Church, Lee said. The church remains on Alberta Road today.

Their release wasn’t the end of their defiance. At one of their court hearings, Sanks-Hobes rebelled against the separate water fountain rules.

“I said, ‘The only colored water I drink is sweet, and this water ain’t sweet. So, I’m going to drink the white water,’” Sanks-Hobes said.

A mini-brawl ensued. When a white officer grabbed one of the students, Lee’s mother “started beating him with her pocketbook.”

“Everybody was fighting in the lobby,” Lee said.

After months of hearings, the charges were eventually dismissed.

Warner Robins calmer than most

The demonstration remains a real-life illustration of the tensions that preceded integration. Separate facilities for white and “colored” people were legal, but the bathrooms, water fountains and services for blacks were typically substandard.

Professor Herd-Clark said it is a common misconception that the civil rights movement was confined to the early 1960s.

“The civil rights movement did not happen overnight. It’s really been going on since slavery,” she said.

The key factors that pushed the movement to a head in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Clark-Herd said, were World War II, groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court rulings on desegregation, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Icons such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X spoke out, and groups that included the Freedom Riders and the NAACP organized demonstrations around the nation. Histories of the early 1960s fight for equal rights are filled with stories and images of demonstrators being beaten, lynched, pummelled by firehoses and disappearing without a trace.

However, local civil rights advocate Ada Lee, Daron Lee Sr.’s mother, said those horrific pictures, stories and images were not a reality in Warner Robins.

“We were blessed in that way,” said Lee, who says she participated in every march locally. “We never was beat up or anything for picketing and demonstrating.”

Lee said she joined the ranks of local activists in desegregating Warner Robins because it was her chance to finally do something about the tears her daughter shed years after being called a racial slur.

“There was nothing I could do about it then, but I said that when the time came ... it inspired me to do all that I could do to make Warner Robins better for African-Americans,” she said.

The activists demanded white establishments give black people jobs at gas stations and supermarkets and to be allowed to use “white” facilities. But for all the demands, none of the protesters were beaten, she said.

Newspaper articles from 1963 and 1964 mirror Lee’s recollection. Stories about missing persons and out-of-control demonstrations that were written for local publications were set in cities in other parts of the state and nation.

A September 1963 story described a Department of Defense directive that prohibited Robins Air Force Base units from participating in segregated activities or visiting segregated establishments. Though city leaders allowed business owners to continue operating as they pleased, they urged a group in October 1963 to “realize where our economy comes from” -- Robins Air Force Base.

Times have changed, but still not perfect

The actions of civil rights advocates permitted black and white children to grow up together. Schools are integrated. Water fountains are for everyone. President Barack Obama, who is of mixed race, is known as the first black president.

Local activists said all of those things prove America has progressed by leaps and bounds since the fight for equality decades ago but there is room for improvement, they said.

It could be argued that the black community has stepped backwards in some ways since the 1960s, said Sanks-Hobes and Alberta Fuller, who was also one of the 17. Sanks-Hobes said government assistance has created a security blanket some are unwilling to shake.

“All of those free handouts have pushed us back some,” she said. “It’s embarrassing to my race.”

Smith, the NAACP president who supported the 17 and helped lead the local movement, said that he and his fellow activists worked to get five black officers -- including Frank Jones, who participated in the sit-in -- hired at the Warner Robins Police Department.

“And, we still have about five on the department now,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, according to Daron Lee Sr., there is a section of the black community that believes no one should “rock the boat.” It prevents some from fighting as hard as in the past, he said.

He was willing to sacrifice graduating on time, he said. Court hearings after the sit-in cut into class time, so he had to drop out for a year.

It was a sacrifice that even his mother says was worth it.

“It took all of that to accomplish what we were trying to do.”

To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.