Fort Mill Times

Honoring MLK: Child of the 1950s recalls civil rights leader’s impact on Fort Mill

Charlotte resident Juanita Sanders, who grew up in Fort Mill, points at her husband's photograph in the George Fish Colored School yearbook. The school was created for African-American students during segregation.
Charlotte resident Juanita Sanders, who grew up in Fort Mill, points at her husband's photograph in the George Fish Colored School yearbook. The school was created for African-American students during segregation.

On Feb. 8, 1968, Juanita Sanders sat in the student center at South Carolina State University when a group of young men stood and said they were heading to the front of campus. They told the women to stay behind.

Later, gunfire rang out as S.C. state troopers fired into a crowd of unarmed black college students, killing three and injuring 27.

“(An officer) thought that someone had a gun; They did not,” Sanders said. “Many students were shot in the back because they were running from the police, back to their dorms. The next morning, they called our parents and the campus was cleared.”

What began as a peaceful protest for the integration of the local bowling alley escalated into the Orangeburg Massacre, the most violent incident to occur on a college campus in South Carolina.

It was the height of the civil rights movement and Sanders was watching it all unfold. She’d grown up in the 1950s on Steele Street in Fort Mill in the heart of of a predominately African-American community that came to be known decades earlier as Paradise. At least some local historians say the neighborhood got its name because of the sound of spirituals that could be heard from women singing while hanging their family’s laundry out to dry.

“We lived in a house with only three rooms,” Sanders said. “There were eight of us, six girls and my mom and dad.”

One of her sisters slept in the kitchen. Her parents’ bed was in the living room area and the rest of the girls shared one bed in the remaining room.

“We grew up in poor circumstances because there was no indoor plumbing,” Sanders said. “There was an outhouse and we had to go across the little branch to get water and bring it back in. But we did not think of ourselves as poor.”

They had enough food. They were well clothed. And what they didn’t have, their neighbors were willing to share.

“All of us were in the same circumstances, poor but not realizing it,” she said.

Because the mills at that time wouldn’t employ black people, Sanders’ mother worked as a maid for about $15 a week. Her father, a cement finisher, made only a little bit more. Sanders said her family didn’t have a lot of money, but their home was filled with love.

They attended church every Sunday and her parents encouraged education. Sanders, the second child, graduated from George Fish Colored School, as did the first and third daughters since the schools in Fort Mill were still segregated then. George Fish was created specifically as a high school for African-American students.

“We grew up in Jim Crowe,” Sanders said.

“Everything back then was separate. And you didn’t think anything of it, it was the status quo. “We could not go into the drug stores and sit on the stools. We could not go to the theatre through the front door, we had to use a side door. And we could not sit with whites. We sat in the balcony. We couldn’t even go to the beaches.”

Although Brown v. Board of Education overturned state-sponsored segregation in public schools in 1954, and the court ordered states to desegregate “with all deliberate speed” in 1955, Sanders said the pace in Fort Mill felt like “never.”

“At George Fish, we had fantastic teachers. But as far as the books and supplies were concerned we got the hand-me-downs from Fort Mill,” she said. “Also, there were certain classes that were taught at Fort Mill that we didn’t have at George Fish. Those students were exposed to more – more extracurricular activities, more academic opportunities – just a better education.”

She graduated from George Fish in 1966, two years before Fort Mill schools fully integrated. Her three youngest sisters graduated from Fort Mill High, one was arrested after staging a sit-in protesting her band director’s assignment to play “Dixie.”

Sanders said unlike in neighboring Rock Hill, which was then a much larger city, this was one of Fort Mill’s only sit-ins.

“In Fort Mill, there were no sit-ins at the drug stores because they took out the stools so you couldn’t have a sit-in,” she said.

However, she and her girlfriends decided to demonstrate their social equality in a different way. Rather than entering the theater through the side door and sitting in the balcony, they walked through the front entrance, down the aisle of the theater and sat in the first row.

“Which is the worst row to sit in when you’re watching a movie,” Sanders said laughing. “We walked out after the movie and a little while later the theatre was closed. It hasn’t reopened yet.”

Her theater demonstration happened soon after Sanders watched Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on a black-and-white TV in 1963.

“I was so moved by that speech,” she said.

When she returned to Fort Mill after college to teach, the classrooms had changed. Although she had graduated from a segregated school full of black faces, she suddenly stood before an integrated group of students. But Sanders said that sometime within those 48 years of teaching social studies, she became colorblind.

Every February, during Black History Month, she’d give her students the opportunity to recite King’s famous speech, in hopes of keeping his legacy alive.

“He changed my life. I saw him as a role model, as a servant being used by God. He wasn’t afraid to speak out against the status quo and do the right thing, not only for blacks, but for all of those who were downtrodden,” Sanders said. “He worked to bring our nation together as one.”

Stephanie Jadrnicek: