Olympic Gold Medalist Wilma Rudolph Leads Protest Against Segregation, 1963
On the evenings of May 27th and 28th, 1963 three-time Olympic Gold Medalist Wilma Rudolph joined three hundred African American residents of Clarksville in attempting to integrate this Clarksville Shoney's restaurant. Despite the fact that the city had held a parade in Rudolph's honor, the presence of this local sports hero did not change the restaurant's white-only policy. However, Rudolph's joining the month-long protest at Shoneys did assure the presence of news cameras and led to this image of Rudolph being locked out appearing in the local newspaper. By the summer of 1963, Shoney's was one of the few restaurants in Clarksville that continued to maintain the color line-especially after three years of protests by civil rights advocates. Restaurant management locked the doors to the restaurant on both nights to prevent African Americans from entering the restaurant while a crowd of about 150 whites jeered and heckled Rudolph and the others. "I just can't believe it," Rudolph exclaimed to area reporters referencing the parades held in her honor when she returned to Clarksville after the Rome Olympics. "Remember the reception I had here in 1960?"
Backstory and Context
The incident at Shoney's was particularly disturbing to the activists as they had succeeded in integrating most of the city's restaurants through protests in previous years as well as behind-the-scenes negotiations brokered by the mayor and Chamber of Commerce. Shoney's and two other eateries continued to maintain the color line despite these efforts, but the Citizens Committee were hopeful that recent appeals along with this demonstration would have changed Shoney's policy of exclusion. Reverend Carl Liggin, the leader of the Citizens Committee, reported that three of the town's fifteen restaurants and all theaters were open to customers of all races. "Shoney's was the only place where we had to resort to mass demonstrations" in their protests that May, Liggin reported.
Days after the incident at Shoney's, the mayor and Chamber of Commerce established a nine-member panel that recommended that all restaurants in the city serve "all citizens on the same basis." Today, there are two Shoney's restaurants in Clarksville. One of the restaurants is located on Wilma Rudolph Boulevard.
Rudolph returned to Clarksville in 1991 and coincidentally agreed to meet with out-of-town reporters and others at that same Shoney's. After fifteen minutes, painful memories of the way she was treated at that restaurant led her to request that the group move to another restaurant. Although the press coverage of 1963 emphasized that there were no arrests and only mentioned that the civil rights activists were harassed by "white youth," Rudolph recalled in 1991 that she and others had been tear-gassed by the police. "The memory was still too vivid as to what had happened to me at Shoney's all those years ago," Rudolph said as she explained why she wanted to leave the restaurant. "The humiliation I had felt," she continued, "I had never been tear-gassed before."