A Delayed Victory
Southern University awards student protesters honorary degrees nearly 50 years after expulsion
By Scott Dyer
BATON ROUGE, La.
Forty-four years after expelling them for participating in sit-ins at three racially segregated restaurants, Southern University invited the 16 former students back to the historically Black campus to receive honorary degrees at its spring commencement.
During the ceremony last month, Chancellor Edward Jackson paid tribute to the 16 former students who courageously dared the state laws that allowed racial segregation in restaurants in 1960.
“Some of them went to jail, and all of them, unfortunately, were expelled from the university,” Jackson said.
The lawsuits filed over their arrests laid the legal groundwork for a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed racial segregation in privately owned restaurants.
“They sat down so we could stand up,” Jackson said.
The 16 expelled students were also banned from enrolling in other Louisiana public colleges, including Grambling State University.
Kenneth Lavon Johnson, who bounced back from his expulsion to become a circuit court judge in Baltimore, viewed the homecoming as a delayed victory.
“The university has finally admitted that we did something other than what we were charged with,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the former protesters were all expelled for conduct bringing disgrace to the university.
“And today we are being honored for conduct that brought favor to the university, even though it was [the] same act,” Johnson said.
“What I hope it shows is that you can stand against what you perceive to be an evil and you can lose, but tomorrow you may still win,” Johnson said.
The former protesters, now in their 60s, are scattered all over the country.
“I used to wonder about all of those people who left because many of them never came back. If we wanted a college education, we had to go someplace else and get it,” said Jo Ann Morris, who was a 19-year-old freshman when she was expelled for her part in the protest.
Morris was one of several Southern University protesters who transferred to Central State University in Ohio after their expulsion. Today, Morris teaches English at Alabama A&M University.
Morris said the key to the eventual success of the Baton Rouge sit-ins was its peaceful tone.
“If we had gone violent, it would have been another reason to kill a whole lot of Black folks and say they were justified,” Morris said.
Morris said she knew she would likely get arrested when she walked into the S.H. Kress department store with six other Southern University students on March 28, 1960, and sat at the “Whites only” lunch counter.
An account of the sit-in in the local newspaper noted that the seven well-dressed protesters sat down at the counter and ordered hamburgers and tea.
Donald Moss, who was a 22-year-old Southern University law student when he took part in the sit-in, said the protesters knew they wouldn’t be served.
“I don’t think we had a quarter to buy a cup of coffee if they had served us,” Moss said.
The manager told the group to move to a “colored” table behind a curtain. The protesters refused, and a few minutes later the police arrived with a paddy wagon.
Moss said the ride to jail was rough because the paddy wagon driver made a series of jackrabbit starts and stops intended to bruise the students.
“They didn’t have to hit you, because they could bounce you around — and we were all black and blue the next day,” Moss said.
The students were charged with disturbing the peace even though they never raised their voices during the sit-in.
Moss said he never expected to be expelled by then-Southern University President Felton Clark, who had previously encouraged Southern’s students to take stands on social issues.
On the Southern University campus, students showed support for the protesters with massive demonstrations and threatened to boycott classes over the expulsions.
Vernon Jordan of Baton Rouge, who was one of two students arrested for a sit-in at Sitman’s Drug Store on March 29, 1960, said it’s difficult to comprehend the gravity of the protests today.
“I’m not bitter. I did what I did because I felt like I had to do it,” Jordan said.
Clark died in 1970, but one of his top assistants during the protests said the former president didn’t have any choice.
“I remember that by the time we left the meeting, he (Clark) was in tears. It wasn’t his choice to expel those students. The board made him do it,” said Elton Harrison, who was Southern University’s dean of instruction in 1960.
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