Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 22
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
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“The Struggle Is Still With Us”: Civil Rights Focus of HSP Panel

Dilshanie Perera

Reflecting on Princeton’s civil rights history during a panel discussion organized by the Historical Society of Princeton (HSP), four longtime residents who had experienced the struggle firsthand spoke at the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church on Monday about their own experiences while highlighting present-day challenges.

Entitled “How Far Have We Traveled? Princeton’s Civil Rights Struggle,” the discussion incorporated topics such as housing, educational practices, actions taken by religions communities in town, segregation, and employment, among others.

Moderator Cecelia B. Hodges, a professor of literature and resident of Glen Acres, noted that the guiding questions of the panel included “How far we have come as far as civil rights issues are concerned; moreover, what was the destination? Have we reached it? And how should we proceed?”

Ms. Hodges was joined in considering the questions by former Township Mayor Jim Floyd, and residents Len Newton and Joan Hill.

Pausing a moment to reminisce, Mr. Floyd said that “in the days of daring to assemble during the Civil Rights era, we used to meet clandestinely, and sneak in and out of houses so as not to be labelled as an ‘activist.’”

While certain structures have changed since then, Mr. Floyd acknowledged that “the struggle is still with us,” and that in the present day we are “still trying to attach some destination” to the project of furthering Civil Rights and fighting inequality.

Recalling the segregated school system in Princeton, exclusionary practices of restaurants, the discriminatory practices of real estate, and a time when the University was a “bastion of Southern tradition and separatism,” Mr. Floyd described his activism in the 1940s.

Mr. Newton came to Princeton in 1951, and said he had gone to “just about every church in town” before being recruited to sing as a tenor in the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church choir and joining that congregation. He characterized the church as “probably the most integrated church in Princeton at the time.”

In the early 1960s, the three Presbyterian churches in town (“one essentially black, and two essentially white”) attempted to form a collaborative, interracial effort to partner with one another to spearhead civil rights initiatives in Princeton. Ultimately one of the churches withdrew, and the move fell through, much to Mr. Newton’s disappointment, as well as that of many others.

Mr. Newton, who went to the March on Washington in 1963 with other residents from Princeton, said that officials all thought there was going to be violence at the rally, “but instead it turned out to be the largest prayer meeting I’ve ever been a part of.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was catalyzed by the march, he remarked.

Having lived in Princeton her entire life, Ms. Hill, who will celebrate the 50th anniversary of her graduation from Princeton High School this year, said that the moment that galvanized her passion for civil rights came at a YWCA national convention in St. Louis when she was 16 years old. One evening in the city, “We were trying to dine at a restaurant and were refused entrance,” she said, calling the moment “pivotal in my life” and the experience “frightful.”

During that convention the YWCA chose eliminating racism wherever it exists as its mission, an objective which remains today, Ms. Hill said.

In 1973, Ms. Hill was appointed Commissioner of the Borough-Township Joint Commission on Civil Rights, which focused on bridging inequalities related to housing, employment, and education, among other. “Princeton still faces many of the issues that it faced in the ’50s through the ’90s,” she said, adding that “the most important issue for me is the education of our youth.”

In the discussion that followed the panel’s remarks, Mr. Floyd emphasized the need to be cognizant of civil rights and inequity in the present day. “We still need fellow travelers to speak up. After 87 years, it’s been a tough struggle,” he said.

Offering the closing remarks, Jennifer Jang, curator of education at the HSP, highlighted youth as “our focus and our concern,” adding that during the discussion, she “heard a plea for genuine friendship,” something she characterized as “the basis for much good work.”

Also sponsored by the Historical Society, a special film screening of Chisholm: Pursuing the Dream will take place on Wednesday, June 17 at 6:15 p.m. at the Garden Theater. The documentary, made by Princeton resident Bob Denby and television producer Tom Werner, features the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm as she campaigns for the presidency in 1972. She was the first African American woman to run for president. A reception will precede the screening at the HSP’s Bainbridge House at 5 p.m., and Princeton Professor Joshua Guild will discuss Ms. Chisholm’s contribution to contemporary politics.

The exhibition, “Stand Up, Speak Out: Princeton’s Citizens Find The Voice” will be on view at Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street, until July 5. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Visit or call (609) 921-6748 for more information.

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