Fighting for Equality: The Story of Jeanne Fleming
By Virginia Taylor, Director of Communications
Late in the summer of 1944, Jeanne Fleming's family was returning to Morganton, NC from New York City. Seated near the front of the train car, Fleming remembers dozing off to sleep beside her mother as they made their way southward. When the train stopped in Washington, the conductor approached Fleming's family.
"You have to move," he told them. "You have to move to the back."
Fleming, half-asleep in the seat beside her mother, remembers the next moment clearly.
"I'm not moving," her mother told the conductor. "Can't you see my baby's asleep?"
The rest of the night was a constant back and forth. Nearby passengers soon began to get involved. "You rape and you steal and you break every law in the book, but you won't break the Jim Crow law," Fleming remembers her mother yelling at one nearby white soldier involved in the brawl. Agitated, the soldier confronted Fleming's mother. "You just wait, when we get to Hickory you're going to jail!" he shouted.
"Just before we got to Hickory, my father came over and he said, 'Aye, Zola, move.' So just before we got to Hickory we moved," Fleming said. "So my mother, she did that in the 1940s, so that was really dangerous at the time because you could be lynched or something."
This moment stuck with Fleming. Growing up in rural Morganton, NC, Fleming described a constant awareness of the fact that she lived right in the middle of something she was never able to participate in.
"If you went to a store, normally all the white people were waited on and then they'd get to you, maybe," Fleming said. "There's no restaurants you could go and sit in to eat, so everything was very inconvenient. All of this happened but we had our own lives, we had our schools and churches and programs, but you're just aware that it was that way."
Fleming's parents never tried to shield her from the way things were. Rather, witnessing her family's strength in moments of injustice growing up led her to seek ways she could fight for equity and justice. Shortly upon arrival at Fisk University, a historically black liberal arts college in Nashville, Tennessee, Fleming encountered the beginnings of the Nashville Student Movement, and quickly became a part.
"It was like 'Oh, finally, that's something I can do!'" Fleming said. "You know I always felt so helpless like what can you do? Everybody else has got all the weapons, the police, the political system, so there was just nothing, until then when the movement came up."
Fisk began attending nonviolent workshops at churches around Nashville. As sit-ins often drew violence from those who opposed desegregation, the student movement was founded on a peaceful, non-violent standard. Martin Luther King in fact wrote, "The key significance of the student movement lies in the fact that from its inception, everywhere, it has combined direct action with non-violence. This quality has given it the extraordinary power and discipline which ever thinking person deserves." (Papers, 5:450)
Established by the Rev. James Lawson, these workshops helped prepare students for the violence they would likely encounter at sit-ins, and how to respond peacefully. It was here that Fleming soon because friendly with notable names such as Diane Nash and John Lewis.
"It wasn't like a big organized thing, just some here, some there," Fleming said of the workshops. "Many churches participated, we did a lot of training there. We'd have some people pretend to be the protestors and some the hecklers. We'd pretend to sit on stools and they'd come and punch you in the back or try to pull you off."
Though the protestors were peaceful, the sit-ins themselves oftentimes became violent as segregationists fought back against the peaceful students. Fleming says she remembers police intervening many times, but rather than arresting the violent hecklers, they would arrest the students, peacefully seated at the lunch counter.
On March 25, 1960, she became one of the ones arrested.
"That day I don't think they were sitting in all over town, because some people were supposed to be negotiating with some stores, so we didn't have a big sit in but we went to a few places" Fleming said. On the day of sit ins I was always so nervous all day, I couldn't concentrate on anything else because you didn't know what was going to happen!"
Fleming remembers heading to the sit in with a large group of students. Positioned in the front of the crowd, Fleming was following beside her friend John Lewis. "John was always leading," she remembers.
"So we get there and walked in the door, and the store owner ran over and locked the door so the rest of the group couldn't get in!" Fleming said. "So that's how I was the only girl. We walked over and sat down and they began closing the counter--they took the top off of the stools and were wiping off the counter and sliding things around. Soon they had called the police. We always said that if they had asked us to leave that day we might have left because there were some negotiations all over town, but they never asked us to leave. They just sent for the police."
Fleming remembers being grabbed and arrested. As the only girl in the group, she was thrown into a cell alone. Soon, she heard Lewis' voice calling to her from a cell nearby.
"Are you alright?" he asked her.
"Yes I am!" she called back. And as Fleming sat alone in her cell, she remembers feeling a sense of resolve push away her fear.
"I felt nervous and all, but we did feel like we were doing something good and something helpful," she said. "We wanted to be treated equally, and so I think that overlaid the fear I guess, hoping that this was going to help and bring about equality."
Fleming and her fellow student activists were released from jail a day later. Frustrated that many of their pleas and negotiations were still being ignored, the Nashville Student Movement began organizing a boycott of all downtown businesses. Alongside other students, Fleming began traveling to African American parishes all around Nashville and asking for cooperation.
"We went to services at different churches and asked to speak and asked if they'd cooperate with the boycott for Downtown and tell them about what all we were doing," Fleming said. "We boycotted everything, the whole downtown, not just places that sold food. The boycott was 98% effective! So that worked, and I think that's what really brought about the real negotiations later on."
As her work with the Nashville Student Movement continued, Jeanne joined a group of other student activists as they traveled to the University of Wisconsin to share the work they had been doing.
"They sent a group of us to the University of Wisconsin, little country girl me!" Fleming exclaimed. "John and I and some other friends, we drove all night. It was like a city! We did panels and sat in the student union and students could talk to us and ask questions. And, I remember my shoes were so turned over because of the boycott, that one day I said, 'Will someone please take me to town to get some shoes?!' I said, 'I must have some shoes!'"
In the years following college, as Fleming found herself preoccupied with family and work, her involvement with the movement lessened slightly. However, Fleming always remained aware of the racial issues prevalent in the United States, and did her part to have those difficult conversations that are all-too-often avoided. Recently, as the Black Lives Matter movement sparked worldwide participation, Fleming said she was reminded of the issues she had fought for during her time as a student activist, and saw the same spirit in those fighting for equality in a modern age.
"I'm very much for the Black Lives Matter movement," Fleming said. "I feel hopeful that if we keep working at this and praying about this and trying to go forward, I do think there is hope. A lot of it is changing the hearts of people. It's a system! We don't want to look at our people we're going to church with as being responsible for that, it's just that I think everyone should want to make it better though."
Going forward, Fleming wants to continue to see changes made to continue dismantling racism and building a beloved community. How it will happen, she believes, is through listening to the experiences of others.
"Experiences make a difference, but not everyone has the same experiences in life and that's ok to talk about," Fleming said." Understand enough to know that we're having different experiences, and try to make things better. No matter how things are, they can always be better."
Jeanne Fleming is a member of the Vestry at St. Mary's St. Stephen's in Morganton, NC. Learn more about St. Mary's St. Stephen's by visiting their website.