Sitting In

by Robert Threatt

There had been sit-ins at Woolworth's on Sycamore St., downtown Petersburg, every day for more than a week.  We had been taking turns in groups of six because there were ten stools at Woolworth's lunch counter and we didn't want to occupy all the stools.  We only wanted to make a point and try to desegregate the place.  If any White person wanted to sit with us, they could at the four remaining stools.  We expected hostility; cat calls, but not violence.

It was my first time participating in the sit-ins and my stomach was tied into knots.  I knew the mission, had the training, but now I must put all my hours of preparation into practice.  I was wondering if I had enough practice, enough guts to go through with this and enough internal strength to withstand what was ahead.  I didn't want to look wimpish to my schoolmates and, I said to myself, if they can do it, I can.

We entered Woolworth's front doors, not the rear for Colored people, and went straight to the lunch counter.  The establishment wasn't busy, only a few people in the aisles of merchandise and no one was at the lunch counter.  The two story building was large, but dimly lit.  It did not have the new tube lighting but the bright sunlight did a lot to help lighten the interior.

We entered, one behind the other, quiet, not smiling, not making eye contact with any White person.  Immediately a hush came over the place. The White people turned to look at us because we entered through the front door.  This was an extreme no-no and is not tolerated but they knew why we had come and so did the people that worked there.

Two White women were at the lunch counter, one behind the counter and one trying to remove each stool from its base.  The women would look like nurses if they wore nurse caps on their heads; now they only looked pathetic.  Looking up and seeing us enter, the woman behind the counter walked to the far end and began to slowly wipe at a spot.  The woman trying to remove the stools stopped what she was doing, went behind the counter and stood beside the other woman.  Both women kept their eyes on us and, like us, did not smile.  That is when I noticed, except for our footsteps on the wooden floors, there was not a sound coming from the large place.  Just an occasional creak from movement on the floor and a cough.

We took six of the available stools and looked straight ahead.  Not a word was said.  No hands on the counter.  Remembering my instructions I was trying not to intimidate nor react to anything said or done.  My stomach knotted more. I wanted to urinate. I could hear my heart beating; it sounded like the beating of a loud bass drum, making hearing things around me very difficult.  I had to concentrate on my instructions.  I wanted to detect anyone coming in my direction but I was having trouble hearing, even in the quietness.  My mouth was dry and my skin became slightly moist.  I still looked straight ahead and tried to breathe slowly.  So far, so good.

Our leader, Mr. Joseph Peterson, asked for a round of water and the menu.  All eyes were on us and there was no movement, just silence.  Joseph then added, “please ma’am.”

One of the waitresses came over, put her face a foot from Joseph's face. “Get out of here, nigger.  You know you can't sit here.  If you want to eat, go to the nigger section and be quick about it.”

“Yes ma’am, but there are no stools over there and we are tired.  We just want a menu and some water.  We'll go after that.  Please ma’am.”

“Ok, if it's water you want, I'll give you a glass of water but no menu.  Then you'll have to go.”

“Thank-you ma’am.”

The waitress went over to the other waitress and quietly spoke to her.  They both turned to get the water as requested.  The entire time, while filling six glasses with water, they kept glancing in our direction.  As they approached us, each holding three glasses of water, they smiled as they began setting the glasses in front of each of us.  As they sat a glass on the counter, the waitress would spit into the glass, look into the person's face and smile before going to the next person.  I just looked into my glass with the glob of spit and quickly glanced at the man beside me.  He just looked straight ahead with no expression so I did the same.  My heart pounded harder.  Miraculously, I could clearly hear everything around me, especially the sound of heavy footsteps approaching.

From the corner of my eye I could see a large White man in a dingy off-colored tee-shirt.  Although he was two stools from me, I could smell his overpowering stench of sweat, alcohol and chewing tobacco.  I wanted to leave before the trouble started but I couldn't leave my friends because we were on a mission.  I had made an internal vow to complete our mission and, smelling the man, it was too late anyway.

The smelly White man grinned, “You don't want the water boys?  Drink up.”

Joseph still looked straight ahead but replied, “No sir.  There seems to be spit in my glass.”

“Are you saying that these pretty waitresses spit in your glass?  Is that what you're saying boy?  If I were you, God forbid, I would be proud to drink a White woman's spit.  Drink up boys.”

I was focused on what was happening to Joseph, so I did not hear someone coming up from behind and stand a couple of feet behind me and the person beside me.  When I realized someone stood behind me, I was startled and involuntarily turned my head around to see who it was.  In the split second, before returning to stare in front of me, I saw another White man, casually dressed, just staring and grinning.  My stomached knotted, sweat began to seep and my body tensed.             

The White man that was talking to Joseph looked toward the man behind me and my partner and nodded his head.  Both men reached between us, grabbed the glass of water, and threw the water at the side of our face.  Then they both spat on each of us.  We just sat there, water and spit running down our faces.  The other White shoppers began to come toward us muttering all sorts of vulgar things.  The tension in the air could be cut with a knife and, I knew, there would be no mercy for us now.

Ok, if it’s water you want, I’ll give you a glass of water but no menu. Then you’ll have to go.

Each of us were grabbed from behind and thrown to the floor.  There were shouts, spit and kicks for all of us.  All I could do was lie on the floor, curl into a ball, cover my head with my hands and take the punishment.  I was kicked in the ribs, arms, posterior, legs, all over.  I peed on myself.  If I had not been in a ball, the kicks would have done more serious harm. I just wanted it to stop.  Now I realized why the NAACP and SCLC taught us how to bind and pad ourselves.  It was to protect vital body parts.  However, everything could not be protected and this really hurt. 

Take it, just take it.  Don't cry out.  Protect as much of your body as you can.  Stay in a ball.  Hopefully they will tire before you have serious injury.  That was one of the lessons.  That is all I could think about.  All I could hear is shouting and name calling, names I have been called all my life but never by any Colored people and never when a White person wanted something done that I really didn't have to do.  It's crazy how nice these people can be when they are by themselves and other times be as nasty as the devil himself.  What have I done?  Why am I treated this way?  Will this ever stop?  I hurt, my sweet Lord, I hurt so bad.  I wanted to go home.  Make it stop.

Suddenly, it did stop and I was grabbed by the back of my shirt collar and dragged outside to the sidewalk.  I lay on the dirty sidewalk, bleeding, in a row formed by the rest of my friends.  White people were all around us, looking down on our balled bodies, spitting and calling us all sorts of vulgar names.  All I could do was stay in a ball until they left, but then I heard car doors at the curb.  I stole a look between my arms that covered my face and head.  It was the police and I thought, hopefully, this will all end now.  Lord help us if I am wrong about this.

Three policemen looked at each of us on that dirty sidewalk.  They didn't look like they were in any hurry to calm down the situation nor were they trying to see if we were hurt.  They also looked like they wanted to hurt us.

The lead policeman spoke to the White man in the dingy t-shirt, “What's going on here Paul?”

“Niggers come back again and sat at the counter, again.”

“You didn't have to beat them like you did, now did ja?”

“Look, Sid, you said this would stop.  They keep coming.  Decent White folk can't even shop without these here niggers interrupting us, wanting to sit and eat and all.”

“I know.  But you didn't have to do what you did.  I understand it's all over the country.  That nigger called King and now the preacher from here keeping this thing going.”

“What preacher from here?  You mean there's a preacher from Petersburg causing trouble like this King feller?”

“Yep, The preacher from Gillfield church.  A man named Wyatt T. Walker.”

“Well, screw them all.  What will you do with them?”

“Let 'em go.  After the beating they just took, they won't be back.”

“That's what you said the last time and they're back.”

“I'm thinking if they get beat enough, they'll stop and we're back to normal and the stores can get back to business.  Because of this, not too many niggers are coming downtown.  Business is down.”

“Well, get their asses out of here before I start beating them again.”

Everyone was still hovering around us and, by now, my heart had slowed but I was wanting to feel the areas where I had been kicked.  The certain areas of my body began to relay a dull throb to my senses.  I knew that when I stood I would feel a more intense pain.  How much more I could endure, I didn't know but I didn't have to do this again for at least two weeks.  There were enough of us to last that long. 

“All right, you black bastards, get up and get out of here.”

I began to painfully uncurl and I looked up at one of the three policemen.  He just looked down upon me and spit.  He missed me by inches but, with the pain in my thighs and back, I couldn't move fast.  I was trying, but sharp jabs of pain were everywhere.  I looked at my friends and they seemed to be as bad as me.  This will take two weeks to heal, if not more.  Where is the justice?  I guess it's only for the White people because the police can see me laying on the sidewalk and, to everyone, the six of us were in the wrong.  I wanted to say something but I hurt too bad.  I hoped I could make it to the meeting place and get bandaged and cleaned up before I went home.  Maybe I could hide most of my wounds from my mom.  She really doesn't approve of this, as she says it is causing unrest when we had peace.

I didn't think my mom would ever understand until she could benefit from what we did in her behalf.  It made me so angry that most of the Colored folk would not participate in any of the things we young people were doing.  They called it peace.  We called it going around with blinders on or having a non-committal attitude.  The sit-ins would continue unless there was a better plan.  There was a better plan.  Shut down Petersburg.