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Taking a Seat Against Segregation

By Tina Joly

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St. John Dixon. James McFadden. Joseph Peterson. One by one their names were called. Each man stood up and amid thunderous applause, walked on stage during Alabama State University’s 281st Commencement Exercises on May 8, 2010. They each received an ASU diploma, just like the other 483 students who were graduating. But unlike the other graduates, they had to wait 50 years to stand up and receive the honor because they were expelled from Alabama State College (now Alabama State University) for trying to “take a seat” against segregation.

Historical Perspective

On Feb. 25, 1960, the three fraternity brothers (Phi Beta Sigma) joined more than two dozen Alabama State College students and marched to the Montgomery County Courthouse. The students had decided to sit–in to protest the segregated dining facilities at the courthouse. They barely got into the cafeteria when armed policemen forced them to leave.

“As soon as we got in there, we grabbed our trays and tried to get served. The people in the cafeteria starting running out saying ‘the N_ _ _ _ _ _ are here, the N_ _ _ _ _ _ are here.’ Within minutes you had more than a dozen policemen shoving us out of there,” Dixon said.

“After they pushed us outside, they lined us up and took our pictures. The pictures were sent to the governor and were on the desk ofthe school’s president by the time we got back to campus,” said Peterson.

“My thought was that we had to do this because it was necessary. Even
though the North Carolina students had protested, the powers that be
thought that Alabama was safe (from protests). They felt that the Alabama
State College students didn’t have the courage or character to protest,” said
McFadden. “Their attitude gave me more motivation to do whatever we could
to make the sit–in happen.”

White Montgomery residents demanded that the state–funded college be shut down.

The all–white State Board of Education accepted a resolution by then–Gov. John Patterson to expel the leaders of the Sit–In Movement and ASC’s then– President Harper Councill Trenholm complied. Nine students were kicked out of school.

STUDENTS EXPELLED FOR SIT-IN PARTICIPATION: Elroy Emory; St. John Dixon; Edward E. Jones; Bernard Lee; James McFadden; Joseph Peterson; Leon Rice; Howard Shipman; Marzette Watts

“Dr. Trenholm told me he had to expel me because I was not obeying the rules and regulations of the state of Alabama and he had no alternative but to comply with the decision made by the governor and the State Board of Education. I was very upset. I thought the school was expelling me for participating in the sit–in when the school had taught me about peaceful protests,” said Dixon. “I found out later that Dr. Trenholm had to expel us because he was told that if he didn’t, the school would lose its state funding.”

After being expelled from Alabama State College, Dixon stayed in Montgomery for a short time and participated in protests to integrate Montgomery’s movie theater. During this period, he was awarded a scholarship to San Jose State College from the Congress of Racial Equality. He now lives in San Francisco.

McFadden continued to work in the Montgomery Student Sit–in Movement for a few months after being expelled. He then moved to Philadelphia where he continued his work as a student activist in the Civil Rights Movement. He continues to reside in Philadelphia.

Peterson also stayed in Montgomery after the expulsion and volunteered with the Montgomery Improvement Association. After a short time, Peterson moved to New York where he worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Harlem. After an intensive letter writing campaign, he was accepted into New York University. He now lives in Birmingham.

The three men returned to Montgomery in February for an ASU conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of their historic decision to stage the sit–in at the courthouse.

It was during the conference that ASU President William Harris announced his intentions to recommend to the Board of Trustees that all nine of the students expelled for participating in the sit–in receive honorary degrees during the University’s spring commencement exercises.

“It occurred to me that this is an historic moment. It was a thing that was not right when it happened. It showed interference with operations of the University … more important than that, it showed a denial of the rights of people to participate in American society. We want to recognize the fact that it happened and try as best we can to undo what was clearly to me an injustice,” said Harris. “We can’t change it, but we can do everything we can to say it was not right and recognize the sacrifices of the people involved.”

Historical Memories

Dixon, McFadden and Peterson came back to Montgomery in May for the University’s commencement. While they were here, they visited the Montgomery County Courthouse.

While driving to the courthouse to meet with McFadden and Peterson, Dixon discussed how excited he was about finally receiving his degree. All of a sudden he stopped talking, looked at the courthouse building and became choked up with tears.

“I haven’t been in the building since the sit–in. This is where it all started,” said Dixon.

What was the segregated courthouse cafeteria is now a locker room. While the building has changed, the memories of the day the three men tried to sit at the lunch counter have not. When the trio walked into the site of the old cafeteria, they stopped and looked around. Peterson pointed to the spot where the lunch counter stood in 1960. Overcome with emotion, Dixon sat down at a table and let out a long sigh.

“Nobody’s going to run me out today. I longed for the day I could sit here and not be thrown out. I never thought this day would ever take place,” said Dixon.

After a few moments, all three men sat around a table and talked about how they found the courage to challenge segregation. “We grew up in circumstances that led us to participate in the sit–in. Emmett Till (civil rights activist) was assassinated near my hometown; so, I always believed that if there was injustice, I had a responsibility to do something about it,” said McFadden.

“I had been a soldier in the U.S. Army. I had seen different parts of the world and knew that change was possible,” said Peterson.

“I was always willing to take on a problem and the segregated cafeteria at the courthouse was a problem,” said Dixon. “I was afraid on that day. I knew the policemen had the guns and the license to kill. But I also knew we had to do what we did.”

As they reflected on that day 50 years ago and what happened after they left the courthouse, all three men said they would do it again if they had to.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that it was worth it. Every bit of it was worth it,” said Dixon.

“Absolutely. We took steps to change humanity and change the world,” said McFadden.

“There was so much racism in Montgomery at the time and we had to take a stand. Even though we were expelled, I believe we did the right thing,” said Peterson.

A Historical Day

On the morning of the graduation, the three were excited about finally getting their degrees.

“I would have crawled to get here. I don’t think there will ever be anything like this. I am so proud of my University,” said Dixon.

“I feel really good and I want young people to know that regardless of what happens, you should always fight injustice,” said McFadden.

“I never expected this to happen. I had no idea our actions would have this kind of impact. I spent all of my life telling my children and grandchildren what I had done and now they get to see me walk across that stage,” said Peterson.

The three men then proudly marched into ASU’s Dunn–Oliver Acadome to receive their degrees. President Harris acknowledged the significance of their actions 50 years before.

“We don’t know how your life was changed by what happened 50 years ago, but we do know how our lives were changed by what you did,” said Harris.

“St. John Dixon. James McFadden. Joseph Peterson. By the authority vested in me by the Board of Trustees of Alabama State University, I confer upon you the Bachelor of Liberal Arts honoris causa degree with all the rights, privileges, honors and responsibilities … I now invite you to move forward and receive your diploma,” said Harris.

One by one, each man rose, then walked across the stage and received his diploma. Fifty years after trying to take a seat against segregation, St. John Dixon, James McFadden and Joseph Peterson now stand proudly as alumni of Alabama State University.

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