JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Outside the old Jackson Municipal Library on State Street sits a Mississippi Freedom Trail Marker honoring the courageous efforts of nine Tougaloo College students.
In March of 1961, the students, Joseph Jackson Jr., Geraldine Edwards Hollis, Albert Lassiter, Alfred Cook, Ethel Sawyer, Evelyn Pierce, Janice Jackson, James “Sammy” Bradford, and Meredith C. Anding Jr. weren’t allowed to access the library due to the color of their skin.
“Sixty years ago Black people did not have the opportunity to read a dynamic book in the Jackson Municipal Library,” said Geraldine Hollis, who was a sophomore during the time of the read-in.
Hollis said this was the harsh reality many African-Americans faced in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era; a reality that she and eight others wanted to change.
“The goal was to make a difference, to make a difference in our society that was the goal,” said Hollis.
The Tougaloo Nine were young scholars and members of the NAACP Youth Council. Their mentor was slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. He crafted a plan to stage a read-in at the Jackson Municipal Library.
The protest was designed to be peaceful, so Evers trained them on resistance techniques and to not react to any potential threat of violence.
“To be able to take the threats and the taunts that we were expected to have,” Hollis described. “We had to prepare ourselves mentally, physically, and even emotionally.”
Here was the plan.
First, the students would go to the George Washington Carver Library, which was for African-Americans, and request specific books they knew the library didn’t carry.
Once they were told the books weren’t there, they’d head over to the Jackson Municipal Library, which was for white people only, request those same books, then sit down and begin reading.
“When we walked up to the counter, they were just really surprised,” said Joseph Jackson Jr., who was the leader of the group. “There was a pause to see nine Black faces standing there. When I approached the librarian and I told her that I wanted this philosophy book for my class project, she politely said that the library was for whites only.”
Jackson said the read-in lasted for roughly 15 minutes, until the Jackson police chief came in and gave them an ultimatum: Leave or be arrested.
“There was a brief pause, nobody moved, and then he said, OK you’re under arrest for disturbing the peace,” Jackson recalled.
Police escorted each one out of the building and down to the jailhouse where they spent more than 30 hours behind bars.
They weren’t beaten physically for what they’d done, but Hollis said she was mentally harassed and emotionally abused by police at the jail.
“They tried to get us to say things, intimidated us, there were threats letting us know that our families would not be safe for us doing such a thing as going to the library,” Hollis explained.
The March 27th arrests sparked a number of protests, but none bigger than the one that occurred the day they were heading inside the courthouse for their trial on March 29th.
“There were about 100 Blacks that were just waving us on, and as we were going up the steps, a riot broke out, and they had dogs,” said Jackson. “Medgar [Evers] got hit over the head by the butt of a pistol by one of the policemen.”
As that fight was taking place outside the courthouse, inside, the students were fighting for their freedom. The undergrad students were charged and convicted of breach of the peace because of the read-in.
Each of the 9 members was fined $100 and given a 30 day sentence. However, the judge offered to suspend their sentences if they didn’t participate in anymore demonstrations.
The students returned to campus to finish out the semester. It wasn’t until the following year that they saw the big victory from their protest.
The Tougaloo 9 members said finally, in 1962, the American Library’s Association changed it’s policy stating membership in the association is open to everyone regardless of their race, religion, and personal belief.
As a result of this policy, Mississippi withdrew from the ALA. But Albert Lassiter said he still considered this policy change to be monumental.
“The overall notion was that Negros ain’t gonna sit back and keep taking things as it is and as if it’s gonna always be this way,” said Lassiter, a member of the Tougaloo Nine. “They are bowing up, they’re going to make a change, and a change is gonna have to come.”
The read-in became one of the first victories in the South to combat segregation.
Decades later, the efforts of these nine students, who put their lives on the line to break down racial barriers, are continuing to pay off.
In 2021, libraries all across Mississippi and the country are now open to every color. Lassiter said it’s a rewarding sight for the Tougaloo Nine, who stood up by sitting down.
“Mississippi is usually at the bottom in every wrong, you’re in the bottom wrong on any ladder, so the fact that we are starting to make a change and it started in Mississippi, that’s a source of some pride I would say,” Lassiter expressed.
Of the nine students, seven of them are still alive today. March 27th will mark 60 years since they staged their read-in.