He heard the news on a February night in 1960, in the desolate hours just before dawn. He was driving south through Virginia on his way home to Charlotte, the radio crackling through the cold morning air. The newscast offered only sketchy details, but the report was exhilarating even so. Four young freshmen at North Carolina A&T, an all-black university in Greensboro, had gone down to the segregated lunch counter at Woolworth's and taken their seats on the white people's stools.Charles Jones listened to the story in amazement. For some time now, he had been obsessed by the cruelty of Southern segregation, that maddening combination of customs and laws that had been in place since the end of Reconstruction. Jones, the grandson of a slave, came from a line of ambitious people, preachers mostly, including his father, J.T. Jones, who wanted the best for the members of his family. But for every African-American in the South, segregation was a crippling, insulting reality, a daily reminder of inferiority from which there seemed to be no escape.
Charles didn't want to believe that was true. He was a seminary student at Johnson C. Smith, a young man of 22, regarded by many of his friends as a dreamer. He had begun to study the philosophy of non-violence -- the writings of Gandhi and some of the speeches of Martin Luther King -- and a few years earlier, in 1956, he was stirred by the photographs from Montgomery, the newspaper images of Negro citizens trudging to work on the gray winter mornings, refusing to ride on the segregated buses.
Eventually, that particular protest had worked. The US Supreme Court struck down segregation on the Alabama buses, and the Montgomery leaders such as King and Rosa Parks became national heroes for many black Americans. But in the rest of the South, segregation survived, and four years after the Montgomery demonstrations, people like Jones and his friends at the college were still at a loss about how to combat it.
Then came the news reports out of Greensboro. More than 40 years later, Jones remembered the adrenalin rush of that moment -- how he heard that the students had taken their seats and refused to obey when the Woolworth's manager ordered them to leave. The straightforward dignity of it took his breath. These four students, whoever they were, had simply declared that the laws of segregation no longer applied. As he thought about the powerful thing they had done, Jones found himself shouting to the great, empty sky: "Thank you, God! This is how we can do it."
It was, he told a reporter years later, "like some kind of cosmic lightning bolt."
When he got back to campus, he met with a group of student council leaders, and declared with a flourish, "I don't know about y'all, but tomorrow morning I'm going downtown, and I'm gon' do what the students in Greensboro did." He had no way of knowing when he said it that his counterparts in more than 50 Southern towns were beginning to make the same kinds of plans. Only later did he learn that all of them were part of the same great awakening.
The Charlotte protests came together quickly, and if Jones was the visionary, the spokesman quoted most often in the press, there were others who emerged from the ranks of the students. Heyward Davenport was a gifted strategist, and behind the scenes there was B.B. DeLaine, a quiet young man from South Carolina with soft, steady eyes and a gentle demeanor, a man who didn't think of himself as an activist. Some of the others thought that was strange, for DeLaine, as much as anybody on campus, had come of age with the civil rights movement.
His father was the Reverend J.A. DeLaine, a fiery leader from Clarendon County, SC, who organized the farmers in that part of the state to file the country's first desegregation lawsuit. Eventually, the case of Briggs vs. Elliott became one of five the Supreme Court considered in its landmark ruling of 1954, outlawing segregation in the schools.
As a child of 12, B.B. DeLaine began attending mass meetings leading up to the lawsuit, and on a trip home from college a few years later, he witnessed first-hand the violent retributions that were now being regularly aimed at his father. One morning he was talking to his mother in the kitchen when he heard a crash near the front of the house. He rushed toward the sound and saw glass on the floor from the living room window and some white men driving away in a car. He grabbed immediately for the family shotgun, but his mother slowed him down, warning him frantically what would happen if he fired.