“Neither the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, nor the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would have even been considered were it not for the demonstrations that were going on in the south,” said Arlene Dunn, a resident of Kendal at Oberlin senior-care facility.
She would know; she was there.
In recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, AmeriCorps, (a national civil society whose purpose is to engage adults in community service work with the goal of resolving community issues), and AmeriCorps Vista members from Lorain County Community College visited Kendal of Oberlin on Jan. 23 to hear first-hand experiences and memories of the Civil Rights Movement.
In the late 1950s, racial tensions in the United States were at an all-time high. Rosa Parks made her famous stance on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Brown v. Board of Education was debated in the Supreme Court, and the Jim Crow laws ruled the majority of the south.
In 1957, Dunn was a junior in high school. Coming home from school, she would see stories covering Little Rock, AK, where nine African-American students were enrolled at Central High in an effort to desegregate public education. Known as ‘The Little Rock Nine”, these students were initially prevented from entering the school by Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus – who sent the National Guard to block school entrances.
The treatment of those nine African-Americans struck a chord with Dunn.
“Not only were they being pushed back by police, but being harangued by ordinary citizens. People were just standing around practically spitting in their faces, calling them all kinds of names, and trying to prevent them from entering Central High School,” Dunn remembered.
While attending college at Brandeis University, she became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an organization founded by college students that was responsible for many of the voter registration drives in the southern states. After graduating, Dunn moved to New York to work full time in the SNCC offices. Upon receiving a piece of hate mail through the SNCC office, she became inspired to join their national office in Atlanta.
Eventually, Dunn found herself in Little Rock, Arkansas – the same city she saw on television when she was in high school.
In July 1964, Ozell Sutton walked into the Arkansas State Capitol Building and down the steps to the basement cafeteria. An African-American, Sutton was denied service on government property based on his race. He was forced to leave. The cafeteria soon became a private, “Members Only” club known as Capital Club, Inc.”
Sutton and the NAACP filed a class action lawsuit against Capital Club. In March 1965, Philander Smith College students – a local all African-American college, and Arkansas SNCC volunteers, including Dunn, tried eating at the Capital Club. After the manager of the diner attempted to discourage the group, other patrons started trying to eat at the establishment. When this happened, the manager shut the doors.
Dunn recalled the mass of blue through the doors of the diner.
“We [could] see behind the glass doors they’re lining up some State Troopers – maybe eight of them…We thought we’d get arrested, or something.But we didn’t,” Dunn said. “They opened the doors and came out swinging their clubs.”
Reflecting on the past, she noted the lingering similarities in today’s society.
“One of the things that exists today, or still exists today is the fear of ‘other,’” Dunn said. “Fear of people who don’t look like you. The fear that people have I think…is fear of the ‘other’ people they can’t define and they can’t understand, and don’t apparently want to understand.”