Mr. Pendleton, Civil Rights Activist
by Gabriela Schneider
“That man marched with Dr. King and sat in more sit in’s than you have years of life…”
In the play, when Bobby is disrespectful toward Mr. Pendleton, Headmaster Marrow reminds him of the veteran teacher’s lifelong dedication to the cause of civil rights. Collaboration between black and white activists was an important component of the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Here are a few examples illustrating how a white ally like Mr. Pendleton might have aided in the fight for racial equality in America.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. led many marches and protests during his career as a Civil Rights organizer. The most famous of these was the March on Washington in 1963, when King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. About 250,000 people participated in the march, and a character like Mr. Pendleton would surely have been there; about a quarter of the participants were white. In fact, there were complaints at the time that white liberals were over-represented, particularly among the musicians who performed at the march. Dr. King also led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, among others. He is especially remembered for his belief in nonviolent civil disobedience, which became a hallmark of the Civil Rights movement.
- Sit-ins are a form of nonviolent protest in which participants occupy an area and stay until either their demands are met or they are forced to leave, with the ultimate goal of gaining public attention and sympathy for the protestors’ cause. During the Civil Rights Movement, people staged sit-ins in segregated restaurants and lunch counters throughout the country. Groups of African Americans, or integrated groups of black and white protestors, would sit in “whites only” establishments and if they were refused service, they would refuse to leave. Some businesses where sit-ins were held chose to desegregate immediately, while others had the protestors arrested and charged with trespassing.
- One sit-in group, known as the Friendship Nine, introduced a strategy known as “jail no bail.” By allowing themselves to be incarcerated rather than paying bail or fines, they prevented the city that upheld the very laws they were protesting from profiting off of their arrest. As this strategy became widespread it also relieved civil rights organizations of the financial burden of repeatedly bailing out their volunteers.
- The Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who traveled across the Southern US on interstate buses during the early 1960s to protest racial discrimination in public transportation. The Freedom Riders intentionally rode in mixed racial groups to challenge segregated seating areas within each bus. The riders risked life and limb facing mob violence to which local police often turned a blind eye; Ku Klux Klansmen attacked the first Freedom Ride, setting fire to one bus and beating the riders after they escaped the flames. When the Freedom Riders were arrested for violating segregation laws, they typically followed the same “jail no bail” strategy used by many sit-in participants.