Students’ protests, demonstrations maintain the legacy, values of Richmond 34 decades

Melissa Stamp
Contributing Writer

Thalhimers, a store where students participated in 1960s lunch counter protests, is now demolished, but honored for its historical significance by a mile marker at 601 E Broad St. Photo by Ali Jones

Even as Black History Month begins, the pervasive racial tensions evident across the U.S. in the last year continue.

Students from VCU, the University of Richmond and Virginia Union University have participated in the national movement to assert the importance and value of black lives in today’s society through protests and demonstrations. Their actions mirror those of students fighting to do the same thing 55 years ago.

On the morning of Feb. 22, 1960 students protested Thalhimers, a popular southern department store chain where black patrons were permitted to shop but not try on or return clothing.

These students, 11 women and 23 men, who became known as the Richmond 34, sat at the lunch counter where they were verbally abused and splashed with hot coffee by white customers before being arrested for trespassing.

The arrest of the Richmond 34 was the beginning of a powerful impact on the river city.

A Richmond school teacher, Laverne Byrd Smith, said in a 2008 interview with Style Weekly that she used funds raised for the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority community dance to pay bail for the Richmond 34.

After appearing in court, all 34 students appealed their rulings, which were finally overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963.

Long before their ruling was overturned, however, the Richmond 34 created a domino effect prompting more college and high school students to protest the unequal treatment of black Americans.

Participants founded the Campaign for Dignity, which organized more sit-ins and shopping boycotts that were successful in widely eliminating segregation in downtown Richmond by the end of 1960.

“The ladies who would normally be serving people, many of them were African-American women, and you could look in their face and see how proud they were,” said Joe Louis Simmons, a Virginia Union student and picketer in 1960, in an interview with Style Weekly in 2008.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was widely successful, in part, because young people on college campuses were motivated by activists such as Malcolm X, to change their world regardless of the consequences.

Students were the basis for events like the Montgomery Bus Rides, marches between cities, boycotts and public sit-ins.

Sit-ins were first used in the U.S. as a form of direct action protest in the early 1940s. However, it was the Greensboro Sit-ins beginning in February 1960 that launched a powerful movement in the southern states.

While sit-in participants did so peacefully, white objectors often provoked them to give up by throwing food items and causing physical harm.

A visit from Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired 200 Virginia Union students to march into the stores of downtown Richmond for their own sit-in. There, students sat at whites-only lunch counters and demanded service until closing.

“Students had been sitting in North Carolina. We had been reading about it and no one had done anything like that around here,” Byrd Smith said.

A mile marker honors the memory of the Richmond 34, where Thalhimers once stood in downtown Richmond. In February 2014, VUU alumnus, Brian Bollock, released a documentary entitled “The Richmond 34,” which chronicles the historic events that took place there.

Although segregation ended long ago, the reality of racial profiling was highlighted again in 2014, following the controversial deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner.

Much like 50 years ago during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, students are heavily involved in campaigning for change.

Now, the modern version of lunch counter sit-ins is trending hashtags like “black lives matter,” organized roadblocks and die-ins organized through social media.

On the VCU campus there have been several peaceful protests, including closing down major streets and marches to the local police station to assert opposition to police brutality and discomfort in communities throughout America.

In November, hundreds of students chanted “No justice, no peace” after Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, was not indicted for shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown in August 2014.

Fortunately, Richmonders have not had trouble with police while protesting, unlike in New York and Washington D.C. where police have responded with instances of violence.

Protesters have been subject to beatings and pepper sprayed as well.  Aside from directing traffic, the Richmond and VCU police have not interfered, instead allowing the community to protest in solidarity with others around the country.

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