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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Harvey B. Gantt, January 6, 1986. Interview C-0008. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Leading sit-ins as a high school senior

Gantt was interested in civil rights from an early age. His parents' involvement in the movement motivated him, and as a senior in high school he helped coordinate lunch counter sit-ins in April of 1960. He and his fellow protestors studied carefully before they took action to train themselves to "resist the ridicule" they expected from white patrons.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Harvey B. Gantt, January 6, 1986. Interview C-0008. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

LYNN HAESSLY:
When your father talked about politics, were civil rights one of the things that he talked about even before Brown?
HARVEY B. GANTT:
He was talking about it before but he talked about it primarily with my mother then. When I started asking questions it became more of a topic of conversation at the dinner table, as it started to become a topic of conversation at everybody's dinner table, I suppose. And I just voraciously consumed everything I could find. I read novels, news magazines, and he reinforced a lot of it. He himself was a member of the NAACP so I was very proud of my father for having the courage back then to be a member of that organization as I found out more about it. It finally manifested itself in the fact that he led an effort of parents to get the use of the white high school stadium because ours was in such bad shape. It was very dramatic to see him and other parents get together and cause a change to occur. So it was probably my family's first direct encounter with politics and , doing something about a problem. They had been active in the PTA and so it was almost natural for them to continue to be active. And their son was a quarterback on the football team, so they were that much involved in it. But it also was the thing that allowed me—that occurred in 1957—that by the early part of 1960 as I was senior, that's when the sit-in started to occur and so I led. I had to act on my own conscience then about the system and had been sufficiently radicalized enough that I thought we ought to do something. I later on with a few other students led a sit-in demonstration which caused us to go to jail.
LYNN HAESSLY:
Tell me about that.
HARVEY B. GANTT:
We sat down at S. H. Kress's lunch counter, after planning to do so for about three or four weeks in selecting our students very carefully, about twenty-three of us. All of us seniors in high school, about to graduate, one April day in 1960, one month before graduation. Our parents were fit to be tied. We couldn't tell them about it. But we felt very strongly. I guess we were caught in that whole thing as it spread across the across the country. This wasn't right; it seemed ridiculous now that you really examined it.
LYNN HAESSLY:
Did you have any organizational support for that?
HARVEY B. GANTT:
We were all youth members of the NAACP. But the whole effort was kind of an adjunct thing that was done in secrecy. We didn't want any and everybody to be a part of it. We started reading about Martin Luther King and non-violence and we were concerned that we got people who were not hot-headed because they would be a liability and all kinds of complications to occur. We didn't want any violence beyond whatever was necessary. We trained ourselves to resist the ridicule we would experience. What we were doing was developing statements on a lot of things that we'd read. We didn't get any of the national leaders to come down to give us any advice. In fact, they would not likely pay much attention to Charleston. Most of the action was occurring on big college campuses in North Carolina and other places.
LYNN HAESSLY:
Yes. I think it was unusual for high school students to have taken the initiative.
HARVEY B. GANTT:
Very unusual.
LYNN HAESSLY:
Why?
HARVEY B. GANTT:
We were the only high school at that time when we got involved.
LYNN HAESSLY:
Why do you think that was?
HARVEY B. GANTT:
Primarily because parental sanctions wouldn't allow it anyway, and we decided if we were going to do it we couldn't tell our parents.