Because of Cecil’s advantageous location on the northeast corridor, the county sometimes came in contact with protest movements. Mostly they were sign-waving college age students passing through, on their way to demonstrate in Washington D.C., New York, or some other place of assembly where their anti-establishment passions would be heard.
During the tumultuous 1960s and a few years on either side of that unforgettable decade Civil Rights protestors, Freedom Riders, anti-war demonstrators, and atomic bomb activist all marched through the county. The nation was in turmoil in this era as things came to a head in Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, urban riots, and other societal issues.
Local residents couldn’t help but notice, as the evening news filled with footage of chanting in the streets. Some of those demonstrators came this way, although the passage of decades has made the era of dissent seem very distant. Nonetheless, we were often observers of the passing scene and sometimes were on the front line.
The most intensive protest, one that directly involved Cecil, was when the Freedom Riders announced a massive campaign against segregated restaurants along Route 40, in 1961. The Congress of Racial Equality, the sponsoring group, said the riders would come from Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York “to test the willingness of restaurants between Washington and the Delaware Memorial Bridge to serve” African-Americans, the Wilmington News Journal reported.
When some 700 freedom riders rolled up and down the highway in northeastern Maryland in September, seeking to get served at segregated establishments, four were arrested at the Bar-H Chuck House outside North East. All charged with trespassing, three Philadelphians, Wallace F. Nelson, Juanita Nelson, and Rose Robinson, were taken the jail (the fourth person paid a fine).
After being booked, the three went on a hunger strike. Maneuvering went back and forth on this issue, Magistrate Leonard Lockhart, Sheriff Edgar Startt, and State’s Attorney Albert Rooney struggling to figure out how to handle this type of non-violent resistance. It had seemed like a straight-forward charge of trespassing, which wouldn’t take long to settle.
On the twelfth day of the hunger strike, the Sheriff transferred the defendants to Crownsville State Hospital. “Anybody that will not eat and won’t stand up in court and plead acts like a mental case to me and the State’s Attorney,” Sheriff Startt informed the Baltimore Sun. The director of the hospital, Dr. Charles Ward, disagred., After assessing the trio, he found no underlying mental health problems that justified admission to the state’s psychiatric hospital, so they were returned to Elkton.
Finally the three strikers, who refused food for 17 days, appeared in Circuit Court. Still the trio wouldn’t plead their own case or have legal counsel. After hearing the state’s evidence Chief Judge J. DeWeese Carter found the CORE workers guilty of trespassing and fined them $51.50 each. However, “in view of the fact that the defendants had already served 17 days in the jail” the fines and costs were suspended. One charge of disorderly conduct was not prosecuted, the News Journal reported.
With pressure on from the White House, the State Department, and CORE, a December protest targeted the remaining segregated establishments. More visits took place in 1962. Finally in March 1963, Governor Tawes signed a public accommodation law, making Maryland the first state south of the Mason-Dixon Line to ban discrimination in restaurants and hotels. The law became effective after the 1964 election.
Click here for a more detailed discussion on the Freedom Riders in Cecil County
Other peaceful protestors, chanting, carrying signs, looking for people to talk to and a place to rest, sometimes came this way. One of those day was in May 1958,when a bunch of protestors carrying signs calling for a halt to nuclear testing appeared on North Street in Elkton. They were going 110 miles, from Wilmington to Washington, D.C., and spent the night in the Singerly Fire House before continuing on their journey.
About the time Sam Cooke released his song “A Change is Going to Come” in 1963 and local judicial and law enforcement officials tried to sort things out, protestors on a “walk for peace” appeared on Route 279 at the State Line. They were on their way to Guantanamo Bay on a walk that had started in Quebec, they informed the local police.
With about 30 dissenters carrying signs, a spokesperson told the Cecil Whig, they were “marching to demonstrate their belief in the need for peaceful relations among all citizens.” They planned to march to Florida, where they would catch a boat to Cuba and walk to the Navy base. While they looked like a college initiation, they called for the highest pacifist ideas, the Cecil Democrat reported. While passing through they added one additional marcher locally, a young man Glen Farms joined on the spur of the moment. They hoped to convince the United States and Russian to withdraw all arms from Cuba.
CORE also passed through periodically, on their way to Washington, D.C. One Brooklyn group made its way across the county in August 1963.
The youthful protestors marching across the county continued periodically throughout the era, passing quietly along, while seeking out chances locally to talk to reporters and people they encountered. Generally area residents looked on with indifference at these activists. Many young men with a deep sense of patriotism went off to war, some making the ultimate sacrifice.