Vines was civil rights hero

Published 4:29 pm Thursday, August 30, 2012

Suffolk lost an icon of the 1960s-era civil rights movement last week. Dr. J. Rayfield Vines Jr. died Saturday at the age of 75 after an illness, according to family members.

Vines brought African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights to Suffolk with the simple act of sitting down at lunch counters in three different downtown Suffolk establishments. On Feb. 18 and 19, 1960, Vines led sit-in protests against F.W. Woolworth, People’s Drug Store and Rose’s Five and Dime, each of which prohibited black people from being served at drugstore lunch counters, which they reserved for their white customers.

His protest was part of a movement of similar protests and counter-demonstrations all around the South that arguably reached its climax with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, and achieved one of its goals with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, even though most blacks would not feel the positive effects of the anti-discrimination legislation until much later.

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Vines was arrested and jailed following the Suffolk protests. He was charged with parading without a permit, unlawful group gathering, leading a mob, inciting a riot, holding a public meeting on city property without a permit from the city manager and “integrating a segregated establishment,” according to an account of the incident on an NAACP Unsung Heroes blog.

In an example of the stubbornness that often met African-Americans’ cries for equal treatment, Suffolk’s Woolworth store set a precedent in its response to the sit-ins. Newspaper accounts from the time indicate that instead of integrating the lunch counters, as Vines and others had hoped, Woolworth removed the seats from the café area and required all customers to stand while they ate. It was a mixed victory, at best, for Vines, whose bail was set so high that a cousin had to put her house up for collateral on his bail. Vines eventually paid a $150 fine.

But some things take time, and true social change — especially in the entrenched society of the mid-20th century — is one of those things that needs time to mature. Finally, however, it did. Today, blacks and whites are equally welcome in businesses and public facilities around the nation, even here in Suffolk. Which is not, of course, to say that bigotry and racism do not exist.

Still, evidence of the success of civil rights heroes like Rayfield Vines is clear in the simple fact that a couple of new generations have come along since 1960 who have no recollection of a world in which blacks and whites do not share the same facilities. Segregation may have been commonplace in 1960, but it’s unheard of in America today. And we have people like Dr. Vines to thank for that development.