BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Janette Hoston Harris, a true southern girl from Monroe, Louisiana never shied away from a problem. As a student leader at Southern University in 1960, the problem she faced was Jim Crow, a strict and oppressive form of laws that enforced racial segregation in all public places at the time.
Separate but equal was the name of the game just under 60 years ago across the south, but for Harris, and many like her, it was not right and she knew something had to be done.
Rachel Emanuel, who is retired from the Southern University Law Center, authored a documentary about Harris and other sit-in participants in 2006. Emanuel calls her an inspiration for taking a stand at a time when so much was at stake.
“I would say that she was determined to be a part of change in making the world better,” said Emanuel. “Horrible things were happening to those individuals because of their race and because of their socioeconomic status and just being who they were, so certainly these individuals said, ‘What do we have to lose?’”
Harris was one of two women in a group of seven Southern students who chose to stand up to the status quo of the time and take a seat to demand equal rights. Just before noon on Mar. 28, 1960 the small group sat down at the whites-only lunch counter inside the S. H. Kress building in downtown Baton Rouge. The group requested hamburgers and tea.
Harris recounted her experiences in the documentary as tense.
“I sat at the lunch counter and it was a feeling of the eyes are all on you and people staring at you like, ‘What are you doing and why are you sitting there?’” said Harris. “It was like, ‘You know you’re not supposed to be there and you know you’re out of order.’”
The students were arrested within minutes and thrown in jail for about six hours. While it seems like a short time behind bars, it was one of the most terrifying ordeals of the students’ young lives.
“I didn’t know what would happen,” Harris added. “They tried to make you comfortable, but that was impossible in a jail cell.”
They were compelled to act though, and unable to miss the opportunity to stand against injustice.
“If you believe something strongly enough, then you have to have some action,” said Emanuel.
That bold action set the community ablaze. While some strongly supported the group, others stood firm against them in devastating ways. Perhaps the most shocking opposition to what the students had done though, came from within the university itself. Facing mounting pressure from outside voices, Southern’s president at the time, Felton G. Clark, condemned the students’ actions and indefinitely suspended each one of them for their role in the demonstration. Judge Kenneth Johnson was one of the students expelled from the school. He says the president’s stance felt almost like a betrayal.
“I remember he was out of town when we got arrested. My thought was that when Felton Clark got back to town, we’d have this great voice on our side because that’s all he projects was that you had to confront this system and we had to do the things we had to do and when he came back and had the attitude that somehow we were the villains, I think that was maybe the one time in my life that I had been really disappointed in an elder,” he said.
Students at Southern though rallied in their defense. On Mar. 30, about 1,500 Southern undergrads left class and boarded buses to march on the capitol for a prayer meeting. Not long after that show of support, many students withdrew from the university. The outpouring of support for the students grabbed national headlines and even sparked other sit-ins and a discrimination case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court and was won.
Junie Harris, Janette’s daughter, says the victory injected a sense of pride and accomplishment in those who were fighting for equal rights at the time.
“It was one of the early wins that they had and set the plate for other things that they did,” said Junie.
Junie says the unavoidable attention from the ordeal came with a price though, and caused severe problems for their family. Harris was forced to leave the state while her family was targeted for her role in the movement.
“Her father, he had businesses which they found ways to shutdown and had rental homes which they found ways to burn down and then when he wouldn’t tell them where she had gone, they put him in jail for a year on trumped up charges,” said Junie.
Despite those early challenges, Harris was able to earn a degree from Central State University in Ohio and a PhD from Howard University in Washington, D.C. Forty-four years after her chance at an education on the Bluff was ripped away, she was awarded an honorary degree from Southern University in 2004.
“Being recognized by the university that she gave so much to and lost so much for and to finally receive that degree, it was closure,” said Junie.
Janette Hoston Harris died in 2018 at the age of 79, but the life she led and the extraordinary contribution she played in the fight for equal rights is something her daughter says remains just as relevant today. It’s something that has even inspired her work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
“It makes me feel like I am responsible,” said Junie. “I am responsible to continue what she started.”
The lesson of perseverance, and in this case, sitting down for what you believe in, is an important lesson everyone can learn.
“I think that’s encouraging for anyone,” said Emanuel.
This vital lesson is a lasting one that was delivered by a southern girl from Monroe.