Carolina Traditions: Looking back at Florence’s impact on civil rights movement

FLORENCE, SC (WMBF) - Montgomery bus boycotts, Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, marches in Selma.

Some cities are just known for their roles in the civil rights movement. Florence, S.C. isn't often among them.

Despite that, the city Florence experience important and sometimes violent events that helped shape the future of race relations in the United States.

There were four major racial conflicts that happened in Florence. They took place in 1942, 1956, 1960 and 1969, and were sort of a microcosm of the civil rights movement itself.

"One is a riot that took place downtown in 1942 that involved a segregated squadron and African-American aviators who were training at the Florence Army Airfield in World War II," said Stephen Motte, curator of the Florence County Museum.

An argument that began at a downtown nightclub escalated to the point that military and state police, local law enforcement and a crowd of about 1,500 got involved.

In 1956, the national spotlight turned on Florence when a major civil rights figure was arrested for using a "whites only" door at the local train station. According to Motte, that man was Clarence Mitchell, the national director of the NAACP.

Perhaps the most significant, however, is a peaceful protest in downtown Florence that landed nearly 50 people in jail.

"Well in 1960 there were two days of civil rights protests and demonstrations, sit-in protests at the local Kress Department Store lunch counter," Motte said.

Gloria Finley was one of those protesters.

"We weren't allowed. We could walk in Kress, Woolworth's, all of them, but we were not allowed to eat there," Finley said. "You spend your money and you out the door."

Even as a child, Finley recognized the need for change.

"I used to come down here with my mother to shop when she got off work, and one day we were in Kress and I said to my mother, 'Mommy, I would like to have a sandwich,'" she said. "And she said, 'Baby you can't eat in here.' I looked up at my mother and said, 'One day, I will.'"

It's often overlooked how much of the civil rights movement was also a youth movement. Emmett Till was just 14 when he was murdered, the same age as the youngest of the Little Rock Nine. Ruby Bridges was just six years old when she single-handedly integrated schools in New Orleans.

As far as the Florence lunch counter sit-ins, Motte said they were organized by the youth chapter of the NAACP.

They met at Trinity Baptist Church to plan.

"We were young; we just wanted to make a difference," Finley said.

On March 3 and March 4, 1960, they did. Approximately 48 people walked into the Kress Department Store and sat down at the whites-only lunch counter.

"So the day of the sit-in, we got there, we was in there for about, I guess 10 minutes or so, and that's when the police came," Finley said.

All 48 were arrested for parading without a permit on that second day of peaceful protest. Finley said the girls were placed in one jail cell, while the boys were put in another.

Ten-year-old Gloria wasn't afraid.

"Some was crying, and some was angry, but I was angry and pissed," she said. "There's not too much can make me scared. I'm not afraid."

Nine years later, the last major civil rights event in Florence happened when a white shopkeeper on Coyt Street allegedly threatened some of the African-American customers in 1969.

"Then you know things started to snowball and their local and state organizations became involved, and the local churches got involved in organizing the protests and there was even a little bit of rioting and looting downtown," Motte said.

Today, the Florence County Museum preserves the history of the local civil rights movement in an exhibit with details of each incident. For Finley, that means something.

"When the gentleman calls me from the museum and said he was told what happened, and I was so thankful for him, he put it in the museum," she said. "That made history for me, that I had something to show. You haven't won the battle and the battle is not over yet."

A group is trying to have a historic plaque installed at the site of the 1960 lunch counter sit-in to commemorate the events that happened there, and to teach later generations about the significance of the civil rights movement in Florence.

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