Fiftieth Anniversary of Desegregation
Good morning, everyone.
Fifty years ago, on this day, Sept. 11, 1963, which was also a Wednesday morning, Henrie Monteith, James Solomon and Robert Anderson walked up these nine steps as the first African-Americans since Reconstruction to do two things: to register for classes at the University of South Carolina and to right a grievous wrong. They were only nine steps for others who entered Osborne that day, but they were a mountain for these three African-American students.
To Henrie Monteith Treadwell, James Solomon and the family of Robert Anderson, it is with a great sense of history and sincere respect that today I warmly welcome you home to the University of South Carolina.
It was wrong to exclude qualified African-Americans from this university prior to 1963. And it took much too long, and it was much too hard, to make it right. It had been nine years since the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, had overturned Plessy and declared that separate schools were “inherently unequal.” Riots had occurred at the University of Alabama, the University of Georgia and the University of Mississippi.
So, as three students approached the Osborne Administration Building on Sept. 11, 1963, it was past time for the University of South Carolina to open its doors to all. Yet it was a tense time as well.
I have often wondered, Henrie and James, what you felt the night before and earlier that Wednesday morning 50 years ago. Perhaps you felt, as you climbed these steps, that you were walking in solidarity with courageous men and women throughout the nation who were desegregating the South and demanding civil rights and social justice for all Americans.
Perhaps you felt defiant, maybe nervous, maybe apprehensive or maybe all three. We do know that you were committed to your goal of enrolling for classes under the protection of the law and that you were girded for the uncertainty that was to follow.
I have often wondered, Henrie and James, what you felt the night before and earlier that Wednesday morning 50 years ago.
When we put this day into a historical context, we must remember that just two weeks earlier, on Aug. 28, 1963, the nation had been electrified by the Reverend Martin Luther King’s seminal “I Have a Dream” speech. Last month, as America commemorated Dr. King’s speech and the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, I, again, found myself wondering how Henrie and Robert, both young college students, and James, a young teacher at Morris College, must have felt as they listened to Dr. King’s powerful oration.
Dr. King said, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. …” I wonder what you felt knowing that in just 14 days, you would face your own mountain … nine steps only … but a mountain nonetheless.
Today we commemorate Sept. 11, 1963, and we celebrate that the day went smoothly and peacefully. We recognize that desegregation occurred at Carolina because of a courageous lawsuit filed by Henrie Monteith and represented by our great departed friend and hero Judge Matthew Perry. It was only when the court ruled in Henrie’s favor that the university agreed to work with students, faculty and staff to prepare for their safe arrival.
The overall campus experiences of Henrie, James and Robert were decidedly mixed, yet their active participation in the classroom and on campus paved the way for a change of heart and a greater understanding. As President Obama noted two weeks ago, “We are not trapped by the mistakes of history. … When we turn not from each other or on each other but towards one another, we find that we do not walk alone. That’s where courage comes from.”
Henrie Monteith Treadwell, James Solomon — we honor you today, and we honor the memory of Robert Anderson. You were so courageous. We thank you for walking up this mountain, toward the University of South Carolina, rather than turning away from or turning on this university in 1963. In so doing, you walked us into new and better days.
And we thank you for hewing out of the mountain a stone of hope. Recently, your university was honored as one of the nation’s top universities for diversity and inclusivity, and that could never have happened without you.