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Saturday Commemorates Civil Rights Activism 55 Years Later

The Pensacola NAACP is hosting a ceremony Saturday to commemorate the 1960 Sit-Ins in downtown Pensacola: the event will honor the young people who participated in those sit-ins and the man who led the effort.

Back in 1960, Cheryle Allen was a budding civil rights activist: just 14 years old and in the 9th grade, when a group of black college students organized the first of a wave of lunch-counter sit-ins at a Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina.

"When I heard and we were listening to the television and seeing everything going on in the country about sit-ins and I can remember wanting to  be a part of it," Allen says.
 

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Credit Sandra Averhart.
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Della Redmon and Cheryle Allen at the WUWF building.

Della Redmon was a young woman in her early 20s attending vocational school. She and Allen didn’t know each other, but in 1960 both were members of the NAACP Youth Council, which would come to be led by Rev. William Dobbins.

Redmon explains that Dobbins energized the group, "Rev. Dobbins, it’s just hard to explain the type of person he was. He was a magnificent speaker. He was very patient. He was a teacher and the youth just catered to him. He was very charismatic."

Rev. Dobbins became the primary organizer of the effort to desegregate the lunch counters in downtown Pensacola, which Redmon says actually began with a walk-in.

"We walked into the store and just stood. And, Mr. Harvey left a note with the merchants as to what we were planning to do [at] Woolworths, Kress’ and Newberry."

Redmon recalled that the group would make a circuit as the counters refused service and would close. First they would go to Woolworth's and the counter would close, then Kress', then Newberry and by the time they had closed at Newberry the first one they went to would be open again, so they would start over.

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Longer conversation between Sandra Averhart, Cheryle Allen, and Della Redmon.

Redmon says the sit-ins went smoothly, or at least as smoothly as she had been taught to expect. She describes it like this, "We went in as groups, we were never left alone. We would go march in the store in twos, the older fellows would walk behind us, to protect us. We would just sit. We were told to sit at the counter and not say anything, to keep our hands on the counter and just sit there and not say anything; whatever was said to us, whatever was done to us, to just sit there until we got directions to leave. We were called the N-word, monkeys, it was just so many ugly names and there was one customer who sold peanuts to the merchants downtown who would go so far as to spit on us. I was one of the ones that he spat on. It really upset me. I didn't have sense to be afraid at that time, because of my age I imagine, but the fellows who were sitting on either side of me reached over and put their hands on top of mine and we just sat there until it was over. That was the kind of treatment given to us. The Klu Klux Klan threatened to come in and do whatever, they even went to the merchants and tell them they would "take care of it" if they wanted them to. They would come in and get us out but it didn't scare us at first, but later on it did, we realized what was really happening."

Allen corroborates by adding, "Reverend Dobbins' house got shot at, his church, they burned crosses on his lawn during that time. He was a very strong man. And his wife, I always think about her because when I was young she had just had a baby and she was a schoolteacher when she came here and they called her in and said, "If you can stop what your husband is doing, we won't fire you.""

Now, 55 years after those tense initial efforts to integrate the downtown Pensacola lunch counters, Rev. William Dobbins, who died in 1983, and members the 1960 NAACP Youth Council are being honored.

Della Redmon says the commemoration’s been spearheaded by Dr. Sarah Jonas, who conducted extensive research on those sit-ins for her dissertation.

"Really I agreed with her [Jonas] because it should have been done a long time ago, because this man really made history in Pensacola. Other people were getting accolades. But, nobody was talking about him; nobody was talking about the students who sat in."

Many of those young people and members of the Dobbins family are expected to be on hand for Saturday’s ceremony, which will include the unveiling of a new monument commemorating their efforts.

It will begin at 3 o’clock at the corner of Palafox and Garden Streets. Back in 1960, that was the site of the Woolworth store where the first Pensacola sit-in took place.