In 1964, Robert Parks packed his Chevrolet Impala Super Sport with clothes and sandwiches for his leave from the Navy. His three children and wife, who was pregnant with their fourth, piled in as well for the dayslong journey from Los Angeles back to Chattanooga.
Parks rarely stopped on the drive through the South, pausing no more than 10, 15 or 20 minutes on the side of a road to catch a nap before again counting the mile markers. Sleeping any longer, or stopping overnight at a hotel, was not an option. The black skin his family shared put their very existence at risk.
The Parks family arrived safely in Chattanooga in 1964 and Parks returned to the streets on the Southside where he had grown up, attended school, gone to church at St. Paul AME and worked his first job at Heckling Grocery Store.
But the city around him had changed since he graduated from Howard High School four years earlier. For the first time in his life, Parks could get a meal downtown and be served at the same counter and sit at the same tables as white residents, an effort led by his high school class.
"It makes you feel good, knowing that you could not do that prior to [the protests]," the 78-year-old said. "You don't have to worry about anybody telling you you couldn't sit, or you have to leave. Just sit down and enjoy."
Parks is a member of the Howard class of 1960, one of the most successful classes in Chattanooga's history. While many members have had personal accomplishments, in February 1960 its members organized the only high school-led sit-in movement in the nation. They faced down threats of violence and police water hoses in their fight for desegregation. They defied the advice of parents and teachers in their push against decades of precedent under Jim Crow.
"The parents told you back then, don't you get involved in things like that," Parks said. "But we wanted to see a change. And I had thought it might be bad, but you got to make a change somewhere."
A small group of teenage students began organizing in a trigonometry class, Parks said. He was president of the student council at the time. The students heard about sit-ins in Nashville and came up with a series of rules for their own: No loud talking, no profanity, no weapons and always leave a seat open between demonstrators. They chose four stores on Market Street: Grant's, Kress, McClellan's and Woolworth's.
The high schoolers who headed downtown after school on Feb 19, 1960, knew they were taking a risk. They had been the target of police harassment and racial slurs countless times before. The brutal murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi five years earlier hung in their minds. They knew there could be violence, the kind they read about in Jet magazine, said JoAnne Favors, another member of the class of 1960.
For the first two days, the Howard students politely asked to be served at the counter. When they were denied, the students sat quietly, wrote Jessie Harris in her history thesis for Virginia Commonwealth University. There was some press coverage of the event, but the defiant act mostly caught the city by surprise.
The principal at Howard told the students not to go back but, by the next week, the group of demonstrators swelled to more than 100, including people from the surrounding community, Favors said. The students did not realize the impact their small demonstration had, she said.
Even major black leaders in the city, including the president of the NAACP, distanced themselves from the protesters during those first days, Harris wrote.
'Sit-ins' in Chattanooga
Marvin Lee was among those who came in the second wave of demonstrations. He was 20 years old then, out of school and married with a family of three in Alton Park. He was scared, he said, but he knew things had to change. He spent decades being treated like a second-class citizen in his hometown or being targeted for the color of his skin, like the time a white employee at the company where Lee worked put a rattlesnake in the "blacks only" drinking fountain.
"I didn't call myself a rebel or anything," the 80-year-old Lee said of his participation in the protests. "It was just something that needed to be done."
By the third day, near-riots broke out, Harris wrote. People outside the Kress store threw food. Some fights began. A group of whites entered the store and took a bullwhip off the shelf and began snapping it in the aisles, an assistant manager reported.
When the demonstrators returned for the fourth and fifth days, the city was prepared. Chattanooga Mayor Rudy Olgiati ordered the fire department to use water hoses on the protesters, making Chattanooga the first city to use hoses on protesters in six years since they were used to quell demonstrations in another major southern city.
Favors described feeling uneasy as the scenes escalated.
"[There] was a lot of white people there, who were just saying all kinds of ugly things to us," she said. "And I was afraid. I really was afraid that somebody was gonna be hurt. But we stayed on our side of the street. And then when they started the water hoses and things, we started running and running [home]."
By this time, black leaders throughout the city supported the demonstrations, including the local NAACP. The more than a dozen young people who were arrested were bailed out, Parks said.
Demonstrations continued in the city, even after the Howard class of 1960 graduated. By August 1960, Chattanooga desegregated the city's lunch counters and three years later desegregated all public facilities.
Members of the Howard class still think about the feat they took on that winter 60 years ago, Favors said. As teenagers, they stood up for their rights, taking on some of the biggest businesses in their hometown.
"We laugh about it now," Favors said. "[We] say if they had served us, we couldn't have paid for it."
The group remains close, though the sizes of their class reunions shrink with each passing year. They were young and wild, Parks said, and just ambitious enough to take the kind of risk that changed history.
"You know, you think back over this stuff and it really makes you wonder, did we really do that?" Parks said.
Contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.