USA TODAY’s “Seven Days of 1961” explores how sustained acts of resistance can bring about sweeping change. Throughout 1961, activists risked their lives to fight for voting rights and the integration of schools, businesses, public transit and libraries. Decades later, their work continues to shape debates over voting access, police brutality and equal rights for all.
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Joyce Barrett marched past the jukebox inside Barnes’ Drive-In, prepared to break the law.
Her eyes met those of Charles Barnes, owner of the mom-and-pop diner. She saw him take in her white skin and wavy brown hair, the sternness on his face as he sized up the group of 18 Black and white students behind her.
“We don’t want colored in here,” Barnes snapped.
Barrett and the others slid into booths and tables as Barnes snatched the phone and called the police. “I got some of them Riders in here,” he said into the receiver. “Come on, quick.”
On Nov. 11, 1961, hundreds of Black and white college students from across the Northeast flocked to Baltimore and Annapolis to conduct sit-ins, aiming to draw attention to segregated restaurants along one of the nation’s most popular travel routes. Frustrated by what they saw as a tepid federal response to the discrimination common along U.S. Route 40 in Maryland, they fanned across the region, hopping from restaurant to restaurant, angering white patrons and needling business owners who refused change.
Their campaign – along with international pressure to desegregate a route frequented by African dignitaries visiting the United Nations and Washington – would eventually push Maryland lawmakers to ban racial discrimination. Federal reforms denouncing segregation soon followed.
“It just sharpened the hypocrisy of being a ‘free country’ that didn’t allow freedom for all of its people,” said Thomas "Tim" Borstelmann, a history professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “And that’s a huge stimulus to the civil rights reforms that are going to come – the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
Civil rights leaders, eager to broker a compromise with lawmakers and business owners, had tried to call off the protest days before. But the students would not be deterred.
“It was a pivotal point that made the civil rights movement international,” said John Harper, who was an 18-year-old Howard University sophomore when he took part in the Route 40 sit-ins. “And it showed that discrimination was national, not just a Deep South thing. It wasn’t just people sipping mint juleps along the Mississippi River.”
At Barnes’ Drive-In, a stone’s throw from the Maryland governor’s mansion, Barrett and her group knew the routine. Business owners had to recite Maryland’s trespass law to unwanted guests. Anyone who remained would be arrested.
Barnes approached their tables and grimly read the text from a booklet as police officers stood behind him. As he finished, he growled, “Leave here!”
Half the group scooted out of their booths and left. Barrett didn’t budge, remembering the stories of her Catholic upbringing, of trumpets blowing and Jericho’s walls coming down.
She and the remaining activists opened their Bibles and started reading.
‘That’s the way it is here’
Route 40’s most-traveled path was a 62-mile stretch of Maryland greasy spoons and roadside truck stops called the Pulaski Highway. It was a mid-journey oasis for white drivers traveling between New York City and Washington to relax, refuel and grab a bite. Black people were not welcome in the highway’s diners, cafes and motels.
But beyond the United States, the post-World War II world was changing.
Riddled with war debt, France and England faced growing resistance from long-held colonies. One by one, fledgling countries began pulling away. Senegal. Somalia. Nigeria. Seventeen African countries declared freedom in 1960 alone.
Within the United Nations, the infusion of unaligned membership upset the balance of power. For the United States and the Soviet Union, tangled in the Cold War one-upmanship of space missions and espionage, influence suddenly meant earning African support.
Then, in June 1961, the ambassador of newly independent Chad, driving from the United Nations to his embassy in Washington, pulled off Route 40 at the Bonnie Brae Diner near Edgewood, Maryland. He just wanted a cup of coffee.
American Blacks had endured Route 40 discrimination for years. But when Malick Sow was refused service, it became an international crisis.
“When I asked for coffee, the good woman said she could not serve me,” Sow told reporters at the time. “She said, ‘That’s the way it is here.’ I cannot say how I felt. I was astonished. I was so angry.”
The unnamed wife of diner owner Leroy Merritt was unapologetic.
“He looked like just an ordinary run-of-the-mill n----- to me,” she was quoted as saying. “I couldn’t tell he was an ambassador.”
Within weeks, diplomats from Niger, Cameroon and Togo were also kicked out of Route 40 restaurants. The foreign press questioned the United States’ purported commitment to liberty: In Nigeria, the Lagos Daily Times wrote, “the United States forfeits its claim to world leadership.”
“When these ambassadors started coming over, they found that Americans had this rhetoric of freedom and equality, but they found a nation that did not live up to this rhetoric,” said Renee Romano, an American history professor at Oberlin College in Ohio.
In September, President John F. Kennedy telegrammed Maryland restaurateurs and civic leaders, pressuring them to desegregate – not just for racial equality, he pleaded, but to help us beat the Soviets.
The Maryland restaurant owners resented the federal intrusion. Even if they personally opposed segregation, some said, they had to consider their wallets: The white Southern truckers who frequented their counters would not sit alongside Black people.
‘No shorts or slacks please’
As Kennedy’s efforts to desegregate Route 40 stalled, the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights group, turned to the nation’s blossoming student activist movement for help. That October, the group’s leaders announced a “Freedom Motorcade” that would target 70 segregated Route 40 restaurants on Nov. 11.
In Baltimore, CORE volunteers worked in a basement office outfitted with mismatched furniture and dim lighting. It was Charles Mason’s job to round up volunteers. A Social Security Administration clerk, he was tired of the slights and slurs Blacks endured – the tattered schoolbooks, the department stores he had to enter from the side door, the clothes he couldn’t try on before buying.
In the weeks before the protest, he piloted his top-down two-seater MG through the streets of Baltimore, his passenger seat heavy with leaflets.
He stopped near a market where he knew he could drop off a batch. Later would come pool halls, taverns and saloons.
The engine chugged to a halt. Mason grabbed a clutch of leaflets from the pile.
“Be A Freedom Rider! Tell your friends!” they read. “All men should wear jackets and ties. All women should wear skirts or dresses. No shorts or slacks please!”
Mason never knew whether people would show up.
Some worried about their employers’ reactions if they found out. Others feared the dangers posed by pro-segregationists.
“A lot of the crowds would become threatening,” Mason said. “It was almost like being in battle. You had teens on the line sometimes, and you didn’t want anything to happen to them.”
‘The whole world is watching’
Three days before the protest, CORE leaders made an announcement: After talks with business owners, civic groups and state leaders, half the restaurateurs had pledged to desegregate. In exchange, CORE agreed to call off the demonstration.
As news spread of the cancellation, students were livid. How could CORE settle for less than total desegregation?
“They were annoyed that the grown-ups had decided to stop. They felt they’d been double-crossed,” said historian Amy Nathan, author of the book “Round and Round Together,” about Baltimore’s anti-segregation movement.
In Baltimore, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee seized on the discontent and untapped energy. They announced a new protest targeting segregated eateries in Baltimore and Annapolis. Plans were made to meet at Cornerstone Baptist Church in northwest Baltimore.
Nov. 11 was bright and crisp as the freedom fighters appeared, 300 Black and white faces spilling from packed cars and buses and singing songs of hope.
Deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome someday
Barrett, a 22-year-old Temple University graduate, arrived with a caravan of Philadelphians.
In high school, she had been horrified by the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, and after highly publicized 1960 student-led sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, she’d started picketing at a Philadelphia Woolworth’s.
At the Baltimore protest, she wore a dress and church-day gloves.
“We had to look proper,” Barrett said. “To look like decent, upstanding people.”
Also in the crowd was Harper, a white student from Ohio who had recently transferred to Howard.
Harper had been moved by coverage of Freedom Riders who were fire-bombed that May by an angry mob while riding a Greyhound bus in Alabama.
“I thought, ‘Why not go to Howard and really learn something?' ” he said.
Just after the semester began, Harper returned one night from dinner to find a gaggle of students huddled around a dynamic Trinidadian American sophomore holding court outside his dorm. His name was Stokely Carmichael.
Carmichael, who within five years would be national chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, told the group he’d done a Freedom Ride that summer, taking a train from New Orleans to Jackson, Mississippi. He’d gotten arrested and spent seven weeks at the state penitentiary. He urged his classmates to get involved, engaging even those who felt breaking the law wasn’t the right approach.
Now, Harper and the other Howard students waited at Cornerstone Baptist, squinting in the sun as they scanned the handmade signs: “Don’t Support Segregation” and “The Whole World Is Watching.”
Harper, buoyant in his tie and cheap suit jacket, listened as organizers made assignments: Who’s got a car? Who can go to Annapolis? Who’s willing to go to jail?
Harper and Carmichael joined a three-car caravan. Taking the lead was the Rev. Logan Kearse, the pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Pastor, and his cream-colored convertible.
Baked fish, lamb pie, cottage chicken
The convertible soon parked amid the brick-and-neon shine of downtown Baltimore. Two packed cars followed suit. Harper, Carmichael and the others climbed out.
Harper felt excitement as they rushed toward Hooper’s, an upscale restaurant catering to downtown professionals. He and Carmichael were among the first to push past the revolving door into the foyer, watching as two staffers slammed against it, trying to stem the tide. A door fixture cracked as it gave way.
Officers quickly responded. The trespass act was read and Kearse and Carmichael were among eight arrested. Harper and the rest fled to the vehicles.
They headed a mile north to Dickman’s Colonial House,, where matchbooks read “Baltimore’s Most Distinguished Restaurant.” This time, Harper stayed seated until officers yanked him from the table and carted him outside. He felt airborne and … THUD… he hit the floor of a police van. Arrested.
Meanwhile, Howard sophomore Larry Gibson, a 19-year-old Baltimore native recruited by Carmichael to lead three other protesters, was having less success.
Uniformed security guards waited outside at two places, barring the group from entry. Staff at two other restaurants tossed the activists out before they reached the dining room.
“Clearly, they were prepared for us,” Gibson said.
The group reached its final location, the Oriole, an Art Deco-style cafeteria five miles north of downtown. This time, no one stopped them.
Gibson warily grabbed a tray. The dishes, set out on ice in steel pans, piqued his curiosity. Baked fish, lamb pie, cottage chicken.
Gibson scooped up some fish in a yellowish sauce and a salad with carrots, raisins and mayonnaise. He kept glancing over his shoulder, waiting for someone to escort them out.
At the register, Gibson had to borrow money from one of the others. The group sat near the cashier, hoping to force a reaction.
Finally, there was nothing left to do but eat.
‘The warden was very sympathetic'
In all, 33 demonstrators were arrested for participating in the Nov. 11 sit-ins. They included Barrett, whose group was taken to Anne Arundel County Jail. There, 23-year-old Phillip Colbert was among the country’s youngest wardens – and one of two who were Black.
That’s the warden? Colbert recalled hearing his newest inmates chattering. But – he’s our age.
Anticipating an influx of protesters, he’d prepared a space usually reserved for trustees.
“I didn’t want to put them with the regular population, for their safety,” Colbert said. “I did not want them to be harassed.”
By morning, the Maryland NAACP had bailed out most of those jailed, including Harper. Barrett and two other women refused, embracing the “jail, no bail” strategy launched earlier that year by students in Rock Hill, South Carolina. The idea was that protesters would refuse to pay fines for exercising their civil liberties.
Colbert checked on the women daily, ensuring they were well fed, with meals of baked ham and potato salad. When Barrett marked her 23rd birthday behind bars, he arranged the delivery of a cake sent by the NAACP.
“The warden was very sympathetic,” Barrett recalled. “He was a very nice guy. And good-looking.”
After 19 days, a magistrate allowed the women to be released.
But Colbert wasn’t done with the freedom movement.
Months later, on one of his days off, the young warden observed a large civil rights demonstration gather at the state capitol. Colbert joined the freedom fighters, even as they were told to leave or face arrest, while fellow officers of the law looked on.
A change for everyone
The Route 40 protests continued, growing larger by the month. Segregationists fought back with violence, threatening to hit demonstrators with their cars, drenching them with water hoses, poisoning them with fuel exhaust from a pickup truck. Harper, who continued to protest, was choked with his tie by police.
In June 1962, after an academic group declined to hold its annual convention in segregated Baltimore, the City Council outlawed discrimination in hotels and restaurants. Nine months later, Maryland lawmakers did the same, as polls showed most Americans believed racism was harming the nation’s image.
The freedom fighters had prevailed.
This summer, Mason strode into the Double T Diner, along old Route 40 in suburban Baltimore.
Once, he was unwelcome but sat down anyway. This time, the owners welcomed the 82-year-old Baltimore resident like any other customer. He took a corner table.
As a child, Mason spent hours at the library reading about slavery and Black soldiers who fought in World War II. He thought things would change for Black people after their service. That’s why he felt compelled to do his part in the Route 40 campaign.
“We believed we were making change,” he said. “Not just for ourselves, but for everybody.”
He stared out the window. Vehicles whizzed and rumbled by. A place to relax, refuel and grab a bite. For all.
To report these stories, USA TODAY interviewed veterans of the civil rights movement, historians and witnesses and reviewed public records and historical accounts.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Racism along Maryland road was rampant in 1961. Students took action.