Part 1 of 2
Like millions of Americans, thirteen high school and college students in South Carolina set out on July 4, 1965, for a picnic and swim. Arriving at Edisto Beach State Park in Charleston, they spread their blankets. Minutes later, while others looked on, they were placed under arrest. Their crime: “trespassing on public property” and “disturbing the peace.”
The would-be picknickers were an interracial group, black and white, and South Carolina, like other Southern states, was still segregated despite the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
I learned of the Edisto 13 from Isaac “Ike” Williams, district aide to Congressman James E. Clyburn of Columbia , the first black person in South Carolina to be elected to Congress since Reconstruction. I contacted Mr. Williams about a project I've begun: an oral history of videotaped interviews with Americans from various cities who were active in the struggle for Civil Rights. An activist since his teems, Mr. Williams told me he'd been arrested 17 times. In the summer of 1965, he worked as a local organizer for the NAACP with people from states as far apart as California and New York, who came to South Carolina for a voter registration drive. Although the Voting Rights Act had been passed, people in the South were frightened about registering to vote and afraid they wouldn't meet the literacy requirements for filling out an application. Many had been subjected to the horrendous "rules" instigated in the past to prevent Black people from voting—the comb test, the questions impossible to answer correctly, the intricate knowledge of state laws.
The 13 defendants in 1965 included Dennis Barrett, and David Lawlor who had come from New York to work as law clerks for the Charleston branch of the NAACP with its president, attorney Russell Brown. Mr. Barrett is now a lawyer representing school districts; Mr. Lawlor is an administrative judge for the Workers' Compensation Board. Julia TenBrink, now an elementary school teacher, came from Modesto, California through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Marian Bennett returned home from Harvard where she was studying African American history, to teach in the Head Start program; Geraldine Gallashaw, who oversees the diversity program for a large bank, was a high school student in Charleston who wanted to make a difference in her community; so did Henry Williams, now a respected business man, and Bruce Miroff, now a professor of political science in the State University of New York at Albany.
I am grateful I had a chance to meet them because of my oral history project. I told Ike Williams that in my interviews I hope to show what Eli Siegel, founder of the education Aesthetic Realism, explained about "the force of ethics" working in people throughout history. "Ethics," stated Mr. Siegel, "is a force, like electricity, steam, the atom—and will have its way.” And in Self and World he wrote: “To be ethical is to give oneself what is coming to one by giving what is coming to other things.”
Aesthetic Realism shows that every stride in behalf of justice has arisen from the impersonal, oceanic force of ethics working in individual people who felt that justice to others was equivalent to their own self-respect. Mr. Siegel defined ethics as “the art of enjoying justice.” I love that definition and am thrilled to see its truth in the lives of people in the past and today. When I told Mr. Williams about this, he invited me to the 40th anniversary reunion of the Edisto defendants and the lawyers who defended them: Matthew Perry, Bernard Fielding and Russell Brown, which was to take place on the July 4th weekend. And so I flew to Charleston with my husband David Bernstein, cameraman for the documentary project.
The Fight between Contempt and Respect
I learned from Aesthetic Realism that every moment of life, people of all races are in a fight between respect for reality and other people or having contempt for them. The cause of every injustice: a girl taunting a child younger than herself, a husband thinking he's smarter than all his wife's relatives, a woman acting indifferent to another's distress—to the brutality of racism and war—every injustice arises from contempt, "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." Contempt made for slavery, for Jim Crow, segregation, and the racism that shamefully persists today. The desire for justice is the most beautiful thing in the human mind, and it is urgently necessary.
Most people are aware of the battles in the 1950s and `60s to integrate schools and eating places. But many do not know—as I didn't until this trip—that the battlefields included state parks, beaches, playgrounds, bowling alleys, even elevators and laundromats. In 1965 all of South Carolina's public parks had been closed for years to avoid integration—although white people used the facilities without threat of arrest. The Edisto 13 case, and others over the years—including Etta Clark, et al. vs. C.H. Flory, et al. in 1955 and the suit brought by J. Arthur Brown in 1961 in relation to Myrtle Beach and Sesquicentennial State Park forest and camp grounds—led to desegregation in 1966 of all South Carolina public parks. Despite the furious history, integration of these parks took place without incident. This is a victory for ethics—a victory for respect over contempt—and deserves a rousing celebration.
And celebrated it was!
Past, Present & a Rousing Celebration
On the afternoon of July 3rd, many of the original defendants, their friends and spouses, took a wonderful tour of Charleston, conducted by Al Miller of Sights and Insights Tours, who narrated and also sang about the history of the city! We visited numerous historic sites—from the infamous Old Slave Market and the last remaining slave houses, to the magnificent Angel Oak tree on Johns Island—over 1,400 years old, with branches 85 feet long—from Catfish Row, the inspiration of George Gershwin's Porgy & Bess, to beautiful Emanuel A.M.E. Church on Calhoun Street, an enduring, beloved church which was a center for abolition in the 19th century and in every fight for justice up to the present day.
In the evening many people attended the 40th anniversary reunion dinner at the Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston. I was moved to be at these events with men and women who had not seen each other since 1965; and to hear them speak about the meaning of that summer in their lives.
Marian Bennett, the guiding force in organizing the reunion, now works as Special Assistant to the Director of the Office of Civil Rights at the Transportation Security Administration in Washington, D. C. She told of being in Charleston in the summer of 1965 to teach a Head Start program to poor Black children who, she said, "lived in poverty like I'd never seen it before." She described her feelings at that time—how quickly her delight at being on the beach changed to fear as the police approached them. This was the year after three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi, and she had promised her grandmother she would not get arrested. In fact, the thirteen had agreed that if they were asked to leave the beach, they would do so without incident. But the police never gave them that opportunity.
Ms. Bennett remembered being terrified of people holding rocks and shouting taunts, and officers who took their time writing the arrest warrants. The police then escorted them to jail, where they were segregated again, into four groups, by gender and by race. The Charleston branch of the NAACP arranged their bail and later defended them in court.
The trial was something none of the participants will ever forget. "It was a defining moment in my life," Ms. Bennett said. “I've talked about it every year since. My children have heard about it. I've always thought about all of us who shared that important time. This is a celebration now that we're together again having a wonderful time; a celebration that we were able to safely navigate that summer. It's a celebration of all the blessings we've had in our lives since then.”
Next week I'll describe the trial and the lawyers who represented the Edisto 13 in 1965, and I'll also describe the culminating event 40 years later on July 4th : the picnic on Edisto Island that they never had.