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; 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—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 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, 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
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 300 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.