"If it takes a few days in jail to get equality, I feel it's worth it. I feel that's the least I can do," 19-year-old Mattie Mae Etta Johnson wrote in a letter to her parents shortly after her release from the Marshall jail. The Bishop College junior had been arrested and spent the night in jail after she joined dozens of other students from Bishop and Wiley College in organized, peaceful protests to open Marshall's lunch counters to African Americans.
In 1960, black college students throughout the South took part in demonstrations known as sit-ins by sitting at lunch counters that only served whites. Guidance for the Marshall protests came from two members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) who recruited participants at both colleges. Harry Blake had graduated from Bishop a year earlier and organized local sit-ins for the SCLC, and Cuthbert O. Simpkins, a Shreveport dentist and Wiley alumnus, served on SCLC's executive board. Each reached out to students at their alma maters and held meetings with interested students. Blake helped prepare the students so they were familiar with nonviolent resistance tactics. By late March, students were ready to take their seats at Marshall's lunch counters.
On the morning of March 26, 13 students entered the F.W. Woolworth store at 103-105 East Houston Street and sat at the counter. The manager announced the store was closing before the students could place any orders. The students left but returned that afternoon when the store re-opened. This time they were told the counter was closed and another group of students seeking lunch counter service at the Union Bus Terminal was told the same thing.
On March 30, students tried again, visiting lunch counters at the bus terminal, Woolworth and the Fry-Hodge Drug Company store just a few doors down from Woolworth's on the courthouse square. Twenty students including Etta Johnson were arrested and charged with "unlawful assembly to deprive a man of the right to do business." That afternoon hundred of students gathered outside the courthouse and by evening citizens of both races had turned up to see the protest and police reaction. When students refused to leave, firefighters, at the direction of law enforcement, turned high-powered hoses on the demonstrators. By the day's end, 37 more had been arrested.
Protests continued with additional arrests at the Woolworth and Fry-Dodge counters on April 1 and of picketers over the weekend, but by the following week, the demonstrations ended and court proceedings began. Over several weeks, judges found the protesters guilty and imposed fines. Some students appealed their convictions, but a judge postponed them in August after a car carrying a defense attorney and two of his clients collided with a train. One young woman survived but attorney Romeo Williams and student Etta Johnson were killed in the crash. In December the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the protesters.
While similar protests in Dallas and Killeen that year yielded results, Marshall's lunch counters remained closed to African Americans and were later removed from the drug stores. The Woolworth and Fry-Dodge buildings remain but the businesses closed several years ago.