Lessons from the Lunch Counter

Sometimes the reality of history can feel unbelievable, not in a way that makes you question if past events truly happened, but how actual people lived and fought through them.

This past semester, I took an African American History class. What we read in a textbook or watch in a documentary often failed to capture the intensity of firsthand experience, so to deepen our understanding of the struggle for civil rights, my professor, Dr. Walker, led our class in a debate game called Reacting to the Past.

Each student took on a character based on different Civil Rights activists at the 1963 Dorchester Retreat in Dorchester, Georgia. I was assigned the role of a staffer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who had taken part in freedom rides and other nonviolent protests like swim-ins and sit-ins.

But it wasn’t until the beginning of this summer, during my first trip to the Center for Civil and Human Rights, that I was able to grasp the sheer fortitude that nonviolent protesting requires.

I sat down at the lunch counter simulation. Following the directions, I put on the headphones, placed my hands on the counter, and closed my eyes.

As the voices swelled from behind, my hands began to sweat, my back stiffening against the recorded sneers. Instinctively, I began assuring myself, “This is not real, you’re in a museum.”

Then, at a certain point, I broke. I couldn’t keep my eyes shut anymore. I had stopped breathing when the violence around me increased.

I kept the headphones on and my hands plastered on the counter, but I stared into the mirror in front of me to sustain a level of detachment from the simulation.

They, the resilient warriors of the Civil Rights Era, couldn’t tell themselves, “This is not real.”

They sat down, braced themselves, and fought a powerful war without an ounce of force.

Getting up from the lunch counter, I felt unworthy to have taken on the role of a SNCC staffer in Dr. Walker’s class without having willingly survived the same brutality.

But I also felt a deep sense of solidarity and reverence, a culmination of sorts.

Something was instilled into my spirit that day: a measure of strength before unknown.