Danville Civil Rights Demonstrators

Danville Civil Rights Demonstrations of 1963

The Danville civil rights demonstrations began peacefully late in May 1963 when local civil rights leaders organized demonstrations, sit-ins, and marches to protest segregation in all spheres, but especially in municipal government, employment, and public facilities. As protests accelerated, however, white authorities responded early in June with tough legal stratagems and violence, attacking demonstrators with clubs and fire hoses. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) all sent state and national leaders to Danville to assist the African American protesters, but to little avail. The legal resistance displayed by authorities—injunctions, ordinances, and court procedures condemned by the U.S. Justice Department—proved so effective and unyielding that protests were stymied, resulting in few immediate gains for African Americans. MORE...


Early Efforts

Danville is a southern Virginia city, which in 1960, was home to 46,577 residents. Of these residents, 11,558, or 24.81 percent, were African American. The largest employer was Dan River Mills; of the 6,035 persons employed in textile manufacturing, 886 were nonwhite and most were menial workers. Danville was also the largest tobacco market in Virginia, home to thirteen tobacco warehouses and eight receiving plants. The 1960 median income of all families in Danville was $4,883, lagging behind Alexandria ($7,027), Richmond ($6,037), and Lynchburg ($5,483). The median income of Danville nonwhites was even lower at $2,578.

The local African American struggle to attain full citizenship began during Reconstruction (1865–1877). In the 1870s and 1880s, blacks in Danville constituted 60 percent of the population; they established churches, schools, and benevolent societies. In May 1883, the town's black majority helped elect the Readjusters—a political coalition of moderate whites, Republicans, and African Americans—and blacks were appointed as aldermen and policemen. But on November 3, 1883, racial and political tensions erupted in an election-eve riot that left four black men dead and four wounded. Subsequently, blacks resigned from the police force and city council.

In the intervening years, African American activists in Danville challenged the inequities of Jim Crow segregation, agitating for equal school facilities in the 1930s and 1940s and unsuccessfully seeking election to city council in the 1940s and 1950s. In spite of the 1954 United States Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which mandated public-school desegregation, there were few challenges to segregated schools or public facilities until 1960. Following the February sit-ins at Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina, sixteen high school students tried to use the all-white Danville Memorial Library on April 2, 1960, only to have the city close the facility. After a federal court order, the library reopened in September, but with all tables and chairs removed. Frustrated with progress under the leadership of the local NAACP, in 1960 Danville activists organized the Danville Christian Progressive Association (DCPA), an affiliate of the SCLC.

Summer of '63 Demonstrations

Despite DCPA-led petitions to city council for more representation in municipal government and services, Danville remained largely segregated in 1963. On May 31, a few weeks after well-publicized demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, protests led by two members of the DCPA began. On June 5, protesters marched into City Hall and occupied the city manager's office; the next day, as two hundred people demonstrated at the Municipal Building, Danville Corporation Court Judge Archibald M. Aiken Jr. issued a temporary injunction, later made permanent, severely limiting the scope of protests. He also called a special grand jury, which indicted three demonstration leaders on charges of "conspiring to incite the colored population of the State to acts of violence and war against the white population," an 1859 statute enacted after John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. Bond was set at $5,000 each.

Leaders of the DCPA sought help from black activist groups, and SNCC and SCLC sent state and national representatives. On the evening of June 10, 1963, a prayer vigil for those arrested earlier in the day met with violence as police and deputized garbage men attacked the vigil with clubs and fire hoses, injuring forty-seven. In the aftermath, concerned black property owners stepped forward to post their houses and businesses for those arrested and jailed. Trials began on June 17 under Judge Aiken. The U.S. Justice Department issued a brief that strongly criticized his courtroom procedures, but appeals by local and state NAACP attorneys, working with national lawyers such as William Kunstler, never brought swift federal court relief. On June 21, the special grand jury indicted ten more protest leaders, including SNCC and SCLC representatives, under the John Brown statute.

The legal maneuvers of white authorities began to take a toll. On July 10, the city council enacted an ordinance that further restricted protests. One day later, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Danville and spoke to a large gathering, but refused to lead a march. The SCLC leader returned briefly on July 19, but an SCLC mass jail-in on July 28 proved disappointing. Of the 311 people who agreed to participate, only 77 went to jail. By August, more than three hundred individuals were awaiting trial. Bail bonds had soared to an estimated $300,000 total. Venues for some cases had been moved to locations eighty to two hundred miles away—a hardship on defendants that led to limited federal court intervention. By summer's end, however, arrests, high bail, restrictive injunctions, and ordinances had worn down and frustrated the Danville movement. No progress had been made on the protesters' goals—participation in municipal government and services and the hiring of blacks in downtown white businesses.

In late September, SCLC held its annual convention in Richmond, and leaders debated where next to focus the organization's forces. In at least one instance, King expressed a preference for a massive campaign in Danville or in Birmingham, where the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing had killed four young girls. That autumn SCLC sent representatives to Danville, and negotiations led to the hiring of the city's first black policeman. An SCLC-led voter registration drive began, but efforts stopped after the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy on November 22. In a city council election the following year, a white segregationist ticket won handily. Meanwhile, civil rights case appeals continued, with some remaining unsettled until 1973 when a circuit court judge suspended the sentences of six demonstration leaders.

Time Line

  • November 3, 1883 - Racial and political tensions erupt in an election-eve riot in Danville that leaves four black men dead and four wounded. Blacks later resign from the police force and city council.
  • 1960 - Frustrated with progress under the leadership of the local National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People, Danville activists organize the Danville Christian Progressive Association, an affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
  • Autumn 1963 - The Southern Christian Leadership Conference sends representatives to Danville, and negotiations lead to the hiring of the city's first black policeman.
  • 1973 - Some civil rights case appeals from the 1963 Danville demonstrations remain unsettled until a circuit court judge finally suspends the sentences of six demonstration leaders.
Further Reading
Barkan, Steven E. "Legal Control of the Southern Civil Rights Movement." American Sociological Review 49 (August 1984): 552–565.
Danville (Virginia) Corporation Court. 1963 Civil Rights Case Files, 1963–1973. Accession 38099. Local Government Records Collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.
Ely, James W. Jr. "Negro Demonstrations and the Law: Danville as a Test Case." Vanderbilt Law Review 27 (October 1974): 927–968.
Fairclough, Adam. To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.
Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Vintage Books, 1986.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Edmunds, E. C. Danville Civil Rights Demonstrations of 1963. (2011, April 7). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Danville_Civil_Rights_Demonstrations_of_1963.

MLA Citation:
Edmunds, E. C. "Danville Civil Rights Demonstrations of 1963." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 7 Apr. 2011. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: January 28, 2009 | Last modified: April 7, 2011

Contributed by Emma C. Edmunds, an independent scholar who received a 1998 Virginia Foundation for the Humanities fellowship to study the 1963 Danville civil rights demonstrations. She is working at the University of Virginia on an online exhibition about the Danville unrest.