Thomas Walter Gaither oral history interview conducted by Joseph Mosnier in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2011-09-12.
JM: In March, I think the fifteenth of March.
TG: The fifteenth of March, yes. Uh, city jail filled, county jail filled, open air stockade. The president of the Claflin chapter of the NAACP was in Columbia, and we had not even told him, not that I think he would have had objected one iota, but this was our movement, this was our time to move, and we didn’t want any tempering from anybody about, “Well, don’t do this. Wait ‘til tomorrow to do this,” that kind of thing. We felt that our elders had had their opportunity [laughs]. They had sat on it. We were not going to be, uh, similarly, uh, situated. So we reasoned that if we move, there’s no choice. I mean, you’ve got three hundred and fifty peace-loving young people who have behaved in a nonviolent manner. They have been arrested. What are the adults going to do? There’s nothing. They, they’d be forced to be supportive of us, and that was the way we reasoned it. [laughs]
JM: How’d you feel at the end of that day?
TG: [sighs] Well, it was [laughs] an, an interesting, uh, day to say the least. By the way, uh, I, I was not arrested on that day for sitting in. Um, eventually, uh, they had students in the county courthouse where they were arraigning them or deciding, uh, booking them, uh, I’m sure, because there were so many people that they had to deal with and, uh, I was standing outside talking to Herbert Wright, the national NAACP youth secretary and, uh, the policeman came over and said, “You have to move. You can’t stand here and talk.” And I said, uh, well, I started walking around. The, uh, courthouse is in a square, and the sidewalk is around the perimeter. Well, after I went around one time, they took me out [laughs] and arrested me anyway and, uh, I was also charged with, uh, with breaching the peace, uh, and, uh, disturbing the peace. Uh, uh, at the end of that day, um, just an enormous, uh, number of people, uh, arrested and, uh, involved.
I remember that we met back up at the, um, gymnasium on the campus of Claflin College and that was the first time that I remember meeting, um, Matthew Perry, who just died, uh, recently. Uh, I remember how gracious he was in, uh, telling us, uh, that we would be, uh, defended. Uh, the NAACP would use its resources for our defense. In fact, he was so gracious that I started to think, “Well, maybe we’ve won something here.” It, it was the just the tone of his, his, his voice. Uh, but we felt good to have contributed that one little skirmish in an enormous-sized battle for, uh, for equal rights. It was just simply the right to sit at a lunch counter and eat a hamburger in dignity like any other American.
JM: Let me ask you about a couple things, um, in, in the, in the run-up to that day. When you first encountered the philosophy of nonviolent direct action, it seems that it resonated with you, I take, and I’m, I’m -