Thursday, Aug. 29, 1963: A stand against whites-only hamburgers

Posted on October 9th, 2005 – 8:20 PM
By Ben Welter

On Aug. 28, 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. One day later, the Minneapolis Star told the story of a 13-year-old Minneapolis girl who was arrested earlier that month in Pine Bluff, Ark. Jean Webb’s crime: She would not leave a McDonald’s stand that had refused to sell her a hamburger.

Forty-two years later, Jean still calls Minneapolis home. She talks about her arrest in an interview that follows the original story.

City Girl, 13, Gets 30 Days
in Jail for Arkansas Sit-in

By HERM SITTARD
Minneapolis Star Staff Writer

A 13-year-old Minneapolis girl may have to interrupt her studies at Bryant Junior High School next month to stand trial in Arkansas for trying to buy a hamburger at a McDonald Hamburger stand there.

Jean Webb, 13, was fingerprinted and released on $1,500 bond.

Jean Webb, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. McClinton Webb, 3244 Clinton Av. S., was arrested Aug. 5 by police at Pine Bluff, Ark., and spent two nights in a jail cell with 10 other teen-age girls before she was taken to Municipal Court.

The charge read to her in court was “refusing to leave a public place at the request of the management.” She pleaded not guilty, was tried by the municipal judge eight days later and sentenced to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

She was released on bond and must appear in circuit court at Pine Bluff later to appeal the sentence. She returned here last week.

Jean described her experience today. She went to Pine Bluff July 1 with her mother, brother and two sisters to visit their grandmother, Mrs. Will R. Wright.

“The Negroes there,” Jean said today, “had been negotiating with McDonald’s a long time because they could not buy hamburgers there. The manager, Robert Knight, told the Negroes he’d open his stand to them one day from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. But when the date came, he didn’t open the stand.

“On August 5th, I was among 20 teenagers who went to his stand and tried to order. The manager asked us politely to leave.”

She said they sat down at a table. “The assistant chief of police came with the paddy wagon then, and asked us to leave.

“We didn’t leave; so he said ‘you’re under arrest’ and took our names and addresses, and everybody got into the wagon and drove to jail.

“A model from New York who sat with us – a white lady – didn’t know what was happening and she was arrested too. The policeman took our purses and they put 11 of us in a jail cell with two bunks in it.

“They put the 10 boys in one cell on the first floor.

“Six of us got out of jail August 7, because a Negro offered us bail money. The others had to stay in jail till Aug. 9.

“The judge asked us all to stand. He made a speech about him being the citizen judge of Pine Bluff. Then he said, ‘I sentence you to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.’

“The white lady got the same sentence.”

While they were in jail, Jean said, they were taken to a room upstairs for photographs.

“They hung some numbers around our necks and took our pictures. We were fingerprinted, too.”

Each of the prisoners was released on $1,500 bond.

Jean enters the eighth grade at Bryant Junior High School next Wednesday.

MLK
Aug. 28, 1963: King shares his dream. (Getty Images)

September 2005 update: Jean Webb is now Jean Webb Bradford, 55, an assistant principal at South High in Minneapolis. Her memories of Pine Bluff are clear.

The sit-in at McDonald’s was an event planned by leaders of the NAACP and African-American churches in Pine Bluff. Jean Webb’s grandfather was part of a group that organized sit-ins in movie theaters and parks that summer.

Jean wasn’t planning to get involved in acts of civil disobedience when she headed south. “I just went down there with my younger sister to visit my grandparents,” she said. “My mother had instructed me not to get involved because of the danger.”

Jean became interested in the civil rights movement in Pine Bluff through her grandfather. She joined a group of young people receiving training in nonviolent protest. The group visited the McDonald’s twice and was refused service.

“They turned the hydrants on us,” Jean said. “Another time dogs were released. I didn’t get bit, but some did.”

The group’s leaders then met with restaurant managers and reached the compromise described in the article: Blacks would be served if they visited the store at certain times. On Aug. 5, about 20 people ranging in age from 13 to about 30 arrived at one of the designated times and were refused entry. “We couldn’t get in,” Jean said. “They locked the doors and called police.”

The actress mentioned in the article was nobody famous – “just a regular person” — and wasn’t part of the group. “She was just trying to get a sandwich. She couldn’t believe that this could happen in America.” The woman talked to store management, pressing the group’s cause, and ended up getting arrested herself.

The group sat outside the restaurant, singing civil rights songs. The police arrived and took everyone to jail. They were placed in two cells, according to sex. The white actress was housed in a third cell. The conditions were primitive: no food, and just a hole in the floor for a toilet. Supporters brought them food during their three days in jail.

“I don’t remember feeling any fear,” Jean said of the McDonald’s sit-in. “We were doing something important and it needed to happen. I felt more fear when my mother found out about it.” Her mother was not pleased to hear of the arrest. After her release, Jean barely had time to eat and get cleaned up at her grandfather’s house. “Me and my sister had to leave immediately. We were put on a train [to Minneapolis] that very afternoon.”

Jean describes herself as a typical kid growing up in Minneapolis, “taking piano lessons, ice skating.” She ran for student council president in sixth grade. She doesn’t recall encountering racism in those years, with one exception. She met with a white counselor at Central High to discuss college options and was asked why she would want to go to college. Her academic skills weren’t in question; she was a solid B student. He refused to give her any information about colleges. Later, she and her mother returned to the school and pressed the issue with the counselor, and he finally gave her the material. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Augsburg College and a master’s in social work at Atlanta University of Social Work. She worked for Hennepin County for 14 years before joining the Minneapolis school system in 1990.

Not many colleagues or students at South High know of her arrest in Pine Bluff. Occasionally she speaks to classes studying the civil rights movement. Students are shocked to hear how she was treated. “They can’t believe it,” Jean said. “They say, ‘Ms. Webb, why didn’t you fight back?” She explains how nonviolence was an effective tool of the civil-rights movement.

What about that 30-day sentence? Jean never served it. She’s not certain what happened, but she suspects that a presidential order threw out convictions related to nonviolent civil-rights protests. At any rate, her mother wouldn’t allow her to return to Arkansas. Jean never visited Pine Bluff again until she was an adult.

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