The South’s First Sit-In

The beginning of a revolution indeed; a revolution whose foot soldiers subscribe to the philosophy that Martin Luther King Jr. described as “the only morally sound method opened to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”  He was referring to Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance. 

Leonard and Annsheila Turkel were founding members of the Miami chapter of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality and they were instrumental in what was referred to as testing public accommodations; a rather benign term for an act requiring a great deal of courage.  It was with equal parts courage, commitment and determination that Leonard and Annsheila, along with scores of other members of the first CORE affiliate in the South set about to change the face of Miami’s and the nation’s racial landscape.  At least a year before the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, claimed by history to be the first in the South CORE targeted the lunch counters of downtown Miami’s five and dimes; Woolworth’s, McCrory’s and Grant’s became the battlefields of civil disobedience with the hopes of ending the stores’ whites-only policies.  Sometimes white CORE members would act as witnesses, taking a seat at the counter before black members arrived and then remaining after the black members left in order to report on the incident from beginning to end. 

Sometimes white members would tell the counter staff that they were waiting for their friends, their black friends, to order.  And at other times white CORE members would give up their seats at the counter to blacks, ensuring they would have a place to sit and order the meals that wouldn’t come that day, but months and years later.  In 1960, the lunch counter sit-in campaign that Leonard and Annsheila had been so deeply involved with, ultimately resulted in the desegregation of downtown Miami’s lunch counters and public accommodations.  “Dr. Brown, what do you hope to accomplish by this demonstration?”  “We hope to eliminate racial discrimination in all public accommodations here in the city of Miami.”  In the midst of the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era, Leonard and Annsheila along with ACLU honorary Howard Dixon and others demonstrated a level of commitment to civil rights that was rare and unusual in the American south.  They reached out to national civil rights organizations and provided onsite know-how and skills, helping to organize the Ministers March.  Leonard and Annsheila also pursued their own local agenda and their own ideology.  It was an ideology that valued human dignity and supported local justice an ideology that found segregation and racial discrimination unacceptable.  This same ideology insisted on action whether the atrocities were right here at home in Miami, hundreds of miles north in Alabama or around the globe.  The nuclear arms race was another unacceptable situation that deeply troubled Leonard and Annsheila not to mention their oldest son Bruce.  Indeed the eyes of the world were on the South.  And what the world saw then, and the ACLU sees now, was the courage and determination of two patriotic Americans who were unwilling to accept the status quo, unwilling to allow it to remain unquestioned and unwilling to sit still and allow it to remain unchanged.  We honor them today as they have honoured the best in us for decades.