Protests in Danville, Virginia
The segregated public library in Danville, Virginia, held a special place in the hearts of the city’s white citizenry. It was the final place that the Confederate government met before the end of the Civil War–the last capital of the Confederacy. So when nine Black high school students demanded the right to use the library in spring of 1960, the white community responded with intense racial hostility.
Inspired by the protests in Greensboro, North Carolina, just 45 miles south, the students staged a sit-in at the library. The demonstrations quickly led to a court order mandating that the library desegregate. The city government decided to close the library permanently and open a private library for whites only–a tactic already implemented for the public schools in nearby Prince Edward County. The action accelerated Black protest, leading to the formation of the Danville Christian Progressive Association (DCPA), which affiliated itself with Dr. King’s SCLC.
The library, reopened (but without chairs) in the fall of 1960. Other public accommodations desegregated. In 1961, the city government removed all obvious manifestations of Jim Crow from its law books, but political disenfranchisement and economic exploitation persisted, fostering continuing confrontation between Black protesters and the city.
Throughout the early sixties, the DCPA, led by local ministers, Lawrence Campbell and Alexander Dunlap, pressed the city government to open up municipal jobs for Black people, who were typically relegated to menial employment. “They wanted, as Negroes, to be employed as firemen, policemen, city clerks, meter readers and typists.” The city’s mayor, Julian Stinson, was an arch-segregationist and refused to meet with the ministers. The DCPA resumed protests in the spring of 1963, marching on the municipal building downtown. The police responded brutally, throwing Dunlap down a flight of stairs and harassing a young female protester, both of whom were arrested for “inciting a riot.”
Sensing that the time was ripe for an escalation of nonviolent demonstrations, the DCPA sent an urgent message to SNCC asking for experienced organizers to assist the local movement. SNCC sent Avon Rollins, a veteran of the Knoxville sit-in movement; Robert Zellner, a white field secretary; and Daniel Foss, a summer volunteer. Downtown demonstrations began in earnest on June 10, 1963, known now as “Bloody Monday.” That afternoon, a small group of protesters picketed city hall. The police turned fire hoses on them and beat them with clubs before arresting them. Refusing to bow down to racist violence, a larger group of protesters led by Rev. Campbell marched to the city jail where they sang Freedom Songs and prayed.
As they marched around the jail for a second time, Police Chief E.G. McCain gave the order to turn the fire hoses on the demonstrators. In the chaos that ensued, police and deputized garbage collectors waded into the crowd, indiscriminately beating the protesters. “Some were washed under the cars; others were clubbed after the water knocked them down,” SNCC’s Dorothy Miller recalled. “Bodies lay on the street, drenched and bloody.”
The violence in Danville gained national attention but was overshadowed by the events happening in Birmingham, Alabama. However, SNCC turned Danville into one of its main theaters of operations. More SNCC workers, including Ivanhoe Donaldson and James Forman, came to the city to keep the pressure on. The Danville Movement also shifted some of its focus to Dan River Mills, by far the largest employer in the city (employing roughly 12,000 people). With the help of researcher Jack Minnis, SNCC purchased stocks in the company and began “raising hell” at corporate meetings. They also initiated a national boycott of Dan River Mills products, calling on Friends of SNCC groups to spread the word.
The Danville Movement made some concrete gains. That November, the city hired its first Black policeman in 90 years, and the union locals merged with a white president and a Black vice-president. But more importantly for local people, participating in the Movement was an empowering experience in which they actively resisted the injustices of Jim Crow South.
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour if the Civil Rights Trail (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Press, 2008), 86-89.
Panel 11, “Arkansas, Cambridge, MD, Danville, VA: Everyone Say Freedom,” SNCC 50th Anniversary Conference, 2010, Shaw University, California Newsreel.
Dorothy Miller Zellner, “Danville, Virginia,” SNCC Pamphlet, 1963, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.
An Approximate Chronology of the Danville Movement, 1963, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.
Interview with Avon Rollins by the D.C. Everest School System, 2012, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.
“Hoses Used on Danville Negroes,” SNCC Press Release, June 11, 1963, Social Action Vertical File, Wisconsin Historical Society.