Social Change at the Margins: Race Relations

Reginald Wallace, Staff

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                           Photographer Reginald Wallace
Anderson-Robertson becomes emotional as she recalls being hosed by law enforcement during a peaceful student march for civil rights.

Emotions were stirred and on display when the violent struggles of the movement for civil rights were discussed at the ‘Social Change at the Margins’ program at Columbia College in February.

Mattie Anderson-Robertson, an activist and witness, described as “inhumane” and “traumatic” her experience and the experiences of other activists during the late 50s and early 60s.

“The thing that really, really, really just stood out in my mind and will never leave,… is getting hit by water from a firehose. Even today it’s traumatic. Even today,” Anderson-Robertson explained with pain in her voice. The audience, waiting in anticipation to hear the speaker’s firsthand accounts of racism and discrimination, gasped with shock and disbelief.

“Every school that you can think of was involved,” said Anderson-Robertson, who attended South Carolina State College, in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Even though there was a pervasive fear of the police and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) amongst African American families, the students’ fight for equality persisted. It was a very cold and rainy day in March of 1960, when students from her school gathered for a non violent and peaceful march for the right to be seated and served at a local whites-only lunch counter.

As they marched, Anderson-Robertson and the other students were surrounded by hateful “caucasians” spitting at them and by police, who terrorized them with menacing dogs. For the students it was a long and arduous walk even though they had only progressed two blocks when suddenly there were the gushing fire hoses. The students struggled not to break formation but the powerful pressure forcefully separated them. Her most haunting memory was witnessing firemen mercilessly spraying a blind girl. The power of the water slammed the helpless girl to the ground, Anderson-Robertson recounted as if she was seeing again the blind girl “rolling down the street like a ball.”

All the students were rounded up and arrested. Due to insufficient space at the jail, the student marchers were taken to a barnyard-like facility where they awaited arraignment. Drenched and cold, they were held for what seemed like hours, while a policeman, shotgun in hand, stood guard over them until they were finally released. This was what Anderson-Robertson described as her “introduction to hatred.”

          Photographer Reginald Wallace
Anderson Robertson says she tells her story to younger generations who may be unaware of her generation’s sacrifices to end segregation.

Anderson-Robertson  was not only a victim of physical abuse and injustices. She also suffered verbal abuse, recalling a time that she was called a “nigger.” Riding a bus home after a long and exhausting day at work, she witnessed a white lady yelling at an elderly black woman and calling her names. When Anderson-Robertson attempted to intervene asking what was the problem, the white lady swirled towards her and shouted, “I’m talking to you too nigger!”

After this hateful event, Anderson-Robertson was fed up with being treated less than equal and enduring racial prejudice in the South. She moved to Brooklyn, New York, for a new life and to further her education. Shortly thereafter, she graduated from Long Island University in Brooklyn and pursued a career in the New York City school system. After having devoted 33 years to education, she retired as an assistant principal.

Anderson-Robertson admitted she has always been a fighter and an advocate for change and for making a difference for the better. She wanted to be a part of the change she wanted to see around her. Her positive attitude meant knowing that all humans are equal and that no one is better than she. This was the driving force behind her determination and success.

Decades after leaving South Carolina and sometime after retiring, Anderson-Robertson returned to stay. She tells her story to anyone willing to listen to raise awareness of the Civil Rights Movement. Though racism still exists today, she acknowledged, the evil and hatred that enabled its terror and violence is substantially less.

Anderson-Robertson, a survivor of the physical and mental abuse of racism, stands alive and unscathed, poised and triumphant. She’s a wealth of knowledge, an outstanding citizen, a leader and a role model younger generations should strive to emulate. For students at Columbia College, she is also a hero!

Civil Rights Timeline (Columbia, SC) lists March 15, 1960, as the date when a thousand students from Claflin College and South Carolina State College marched while being hosed and gassed, with hundreds arrested.


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