That Moment People say “No!”
Fifty years ago six college students – two African American and four White – went to jail for sitting down at Patterson Drugstore lunch counter in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Their plans had been amorphous: “let's just talk to Mr. Patterson”...they were honor students after all, and talking surely would convince the owner/manager that racial segregation was wrong.
They had no plan when, red-faced and enraged, Mr. Patterson yelled into each of their faces giving them one last chance to vacate his establishment.
One of the group Mary Edith Bentley Abu Saba,twenty-one years old on December 14, 1960 said, “None of us moved. We just sat there. Actually, I couldn't move!”
Mr. Patterson called the police.
The police gave them one last chance to leave.
Still the students sat.
Behaviorists and scientists name this phenomenon “entrainment” – when separate objects vibrating at different speeds start to vibrate at the same speed.
Those scared students entrained. And their story is a metaphor for what is happening today, from the Middle East to Wisconsin, as people come together as one to protest the lack of dignity with they are treated.
The police arrested and handcuffed the group – later known as the Patterson Six – and took them to jail.
It is yet to be seen how long and how far will progress the resistance across the globe. In this case, entrainment – unlike “group think” – depends on how each person gauges the personal and political consequences.
Bentley had had other things to do that day. “I needed to practice for an important music recital. I also was busy planning my wedding for the day after I graduated. So when my friend Rebecca Mays Owen approached me at noon about going for coffee I made her promise that I'd be back on campus by five o'clock.”
Instead, Mary Edith Bentley and Rebecca Mays Owen of Randolph-Macon Woman's College, James Hunter and Terrill Brumback of Lynchburg College, and Barbara Thomas and Kenneth Green of Virginia Theological Seminary and College spent the next three hours in jail, segregated by race and gender.
To his credit, the president of Randolph-Macon Woman's College, Dr. William Quillian, Jr., never wavered in his support for the students. He posted $1,000 bond for each of them. But “civil rights” were dirty words in that part of the country at that time and the students' photographs and story were plastered over the front page of newspapers throughout the South, then the nation. Quillian was under tremendous pressure from the college board and the community to condemn and expel Bentley and Owen. He resisted.
Jim Holt was the lawyer for the Patterson Six. His presence in the court room disturbed the judge who had never faced an African American in that role before. Anytime Holt praised the students' actions,the judge banged his gavel to redirect the defense saying, “we need not go down that road.”
The judge was astonished when Holt and the defendants refused to appeal their 30-day sentence and chose jail instead.
Bentley Abu Saba laughed as she told the story in a recent Raising Sand Radio interview, “I was ready for jail. I had a change of underwear and my toothbrush in my pocketbook. We may have been naïve [about the power of talking to those in power] but we understood that six honor students spending 30 days in jail would have a great impact.”
And it did. Lynchburg streets and courtroom were crowded with angry, shouting Southerners, many of whom carried weapons improvised from bicycle chains.
Yet Bentley never had second thoughts about what she'd done. “On the contrary: I felt proud of myself. I learned about an inner strength that I never knew I had.”
All episodes of resistance have consequences. For Bentley in the microcosm of Lynchburg, Virginia the Episcopal minister retracted his invitation to play her final music piece on the church's new, state-of-the-art organ. The Methodist minister refused his church for her wedding when he learned she'd invited African American guests. It took eight years to de-segregate – by race and gender – Randolph-Macon Woman's College. Fifty years later, Bentley and Hunter, the two surviving members of Patterson Six, are feted.
The full consequences of resistance in the Middle East and Wisconsin may not be fully understood for years. But, expect the unexpected as people act as one, as they entrain. As New York Times reporter Nick Kristof wrote from Bahrain recently:
... activists are unbelievably courageous. I’ve been taken aback by their determination and bravery. They faced down tanks and soldiers, withstood beatings and bullets, and if they achieve democracy – boy, they deserve it.
While people from vastly different cultures, languages, and background may not agree on how civil rights, democracy, and dignity look they all know how a lack of dignity feels. Clearly they have had enough of that feeling. With cries of “No more! Enough!” they're ready to go down a different road, one where “entrainment” has a different name: People Power.