January 20 marks Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. This is a day to honor the great Civil Rights leader and reflect not just on his actions, but on the necessary shifts that took place to create more equality in our country. The bravery and passion of Dr. King ignited a movement that was felt nationwide, including in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Lynchburg Residents Took a Stand
On December 15, 1960, an 18-year-old African American student, Miriam Gaines, walked into a Downtown Lynchburg drug store and claimed a stool at the “whites only” lunch counter. Tensions were already high, as just a day earlier, six other students had been arrested for a similar act at another segregated local drug store.
Gaines, seated alongside four white students from Randolph-Macon Women’s College, quietly waited as her companions ordered sodas at the counter. But, when one of the women slid the soda over to Gaines, people recall that moment as “the straw that broke [the drugstore’s] back.” The manager of the drugstore promptly kicked Gaines and her four companions out and closed early for the evening.
The Moment Sparked a Movement
On that day, there was no violence or police intervention. It was a simple statement that said, “This needs to change.”
After that moment on December 15, 1960, a wave of lunch counter sit-ins began to take place across Lynchburg, as well as boycotts, picket lines and segregation lawsuits. In an interview with a local publication, Gaines is quoted as saying, “There are far more people that did greater things and riskier things to get freedom for everybody. It was a very small part we played, but a part that needed to be played.”
This story is just one of many—instances of bravery, belief and an unequivocal desire for equality—that took place in Lynchburg during that time. But it serves as an incredible reminder of what intentional action can lead to in the face of adversity.
Martin Luther King Jr. Speaks in Lynchburg
Just two years after that group of students took a stand in a local drug store, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Lynchburg, Virginia. On March 27, 1962, E.C. Glass High School hosted Dr. King as he delivered a heartfelt and impassioned speech.
In it, he expressed his gratitude for those in the community who had “worked…in such untiring manner to grapple with the problems [in Lynchburg] and to break down the barriers of segregation and discrimination.” He went on to share about the American Dream—one in which all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, as originally penned in the Declaration of Independence.
The emotion in that high school gymnasium was energetic. Black and white men and women came together peacefully, and listened as Dr. King recounted his own experiences with discrimination and recited important works from philosophers and poets, all of which helped him reinforce his message of equality and freedom.
Visit the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Lynchburg
While you’re in Lynchburg, stop by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center inside the Lynchburg Public Library. This visual display reflects on the impact Dr. King had on the Lynchburg area during the Civil Rights Movement, especially in March 1962 when he spoke in Lynchburg. This exhibit is free and open to the public during Library hours.