Alexandria library sit-in’s 75th anniversary commemorated

Alexandria library sit-in’s 75th anniversary commemorated

By Derrick Perkins (Photo/Derrick Perkins)

Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, did not mince words when it came to famed Alexandria attorney Samuel W. Tucker and the five young black men he sent into a city library in 1939.

“It’s just amazing to me how much good can be done for everyone else by very few,” she said during Thursday’s ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the library sit-in. “We owe a tremendous debt to those five great heroes and their legal counsel.”

On that warm August day decades ago, Tucker decided to make a statement. The 26-year-old lawyer instructed his five young compatriots to enter the whites-only library and to each ask for a borrowers’ card. Refused, the first four men took a seat — to the astonishment of the befuddled librarian — and began silently reading.

The fifth did not bother to speak with the librarian. He made for the stacks, picked out a book and sat down.

All five were charged with disorderly conduct and escorted from the library, now the Kate Waller Barrett branch, exactly as Tucker had planned. In court, he got the men off while successfully arguing Alexandria’s blacks had a right to use the library as the city had no such separate but equal facility.

Though city officials seized on a loophole by building a black library — to Tucker’s immense dismay — the sit-in marked an early example of peaceful protest and civil disobedience. After this first step, Tucker spent much of the rest of his life fighting segregation.

On Thursday, city and state officials paid tribute to Tucker’s memory and legacy. Though nowhere near as big as last year’s commemoration of the March on Washington, dignitaries took great pains to hold up Tucker and the Alexandria Library five as early — and largely unsung — heroes in the fight for civil rights.

“Their actions were extraordinary in the City of Alexandria and the country,” Timmons-Goodson said.

The former North Carolina state Supreme Court justice was joined by Mayor Bill Euille, state Delegate Rob Krupicka, noted local educator Ferdinand Day and Frank Smith, the director of the African-American Civil War Museum. All took turns lauding the men.

Smith, a civil rights activist in his own right, connected the sit-in to the waves of demonstrations — and arrests — in Ferguson, Mo., following the police-involved shooting of a young black man. He called for a minute of silence in honor of the protestors while asking for peace.

“African-Americans still are targets. Young people still are targets,” Smith said. “We are praying for [the people of Ferguson].”

Timmons-Goodson also linked the sit-in to the present day, using the story to encourage young people to become civically engaged. Among her lessons: improve your community, cooperate, embrace peaceful tactics and remember that the young play a pivotal role in civic activism.

As for Tucker and his comrades, they should not be confined to the history books, she said.

“I don’t think it’s enough to remember. … It’s not enough to honor these folks. We can and should do more. I offer that we should take time to learn from them,” Timmons-Goodson said. “Let us commit to being our best and doing our best as we struggle today for the vast number of citizens to come.”