"Out of Obscurity" Sit-In
"Out of Obscurity" details one of the many little known, but nonetheless
important, episodes in civil rights history. In the 1930s public facilities were
segregated throughout the South. There were separate schools and restaurants for
blacks and whites. Blacks weren't even allowed to try on clothes in many
department stores. Some places had three restrooms; one labeled "white ladies,"
another "colored women" and the third for "white men." Blacks were banned from
using the libraries. Recognizing the importance of public libraries as centers
of information and a place where poor people could educate themselves, a handful
of brave youths decided to challenge this ban.
In 1939, just before World
War II broke out, five young men staged a civil protest to open the Alexandria,
Virginia public library to African Americans. One by one they walked into the
library and asked for library cards. When they were refused, each sat down at a
separate table with a book quietly reading. A library clerk who saw them
panicked, yelling, "There are colored people all over the library." The police
were summoned and the men were arrested. By the time the men left the library a
crowd had gathered outside and a news reporter who had been tipped off to the
protest snapped their picture. A few days later, their story was buried under
the news by Hitler's invasion of Poland.
The mastermind behind the
Alexandria library sit-in was Samuel Wilbert Tucker, a 26-year-old local lawyer
who had learned about passive resistance from Howard University theology
professor Howard Thurman. Tucker used the protest to file a lawsuit to end the
exclusion of African Americans from the public library. The protestors were
charged with trespassing, which was later changed to disorderly conduct.
Ultimately, the case stalled when a local judge failed to make a final ruling.
But the judge did find that no regulation limited the library's use to whites;
it was open to Alexandria residents or taxpayers. However, this wasn't the
victory that it seemed. Rather than endure black readers at the library, the
city council appropriated funds to build a "colored branch" of the library. The
colored branch had shorter hours and cast-off books. The library was finally
actually integrated in the 1950s.
It was Tucker's first challenge to
segregation. He went on to become one of the most celebrated civil rights
attorneys in the state of Virginia, leading the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) ongoing legal challenge to segregation
and helping litigate landmark cases that eventually broke the back of racial
segregation in the nation's schools. He argued some 50 school desegregation
cases within the state of Virginia.
The documentary features a dramatic
reenactment of the sit-in with local actors at the original site of the protest.
Through interviews with Tucker, one of the participants in the 1939 protest,
local residents, and civil rights experts, and featuring striking photographs
and archival footage, Out of Obscurity presents the tale of this quiet
confrontation to break the chains of segregation. Dr. Julian Bond, Chairman of
the NAACP, who helped lead the student sit-in movement in the 1960s, which the
library protest foreshadowed, narrates it.
Out of Obscurity is another
reminder that the struggle for rights we have today wasn't easy and was
pioneered by courageous ordinary and not-so-ordinary people who refused to go by
Out of Obscurity