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'It feels like we're moving forward': civil rights movement in Lancaster today mirrors movements of the 60s

Rocky Springs Pool protest

Elizabeth Ford, left, then 15, holds a flag while local civil rights leader, the late Nelson Polite Sr. carries a “Democracy for Everyone” sign at a 1963 protest of the illegal discriminatory practices at the Rocky Springs Pool.

The signs read “We Feel the Heat Too,” “Democracy for Everyone,” “Black Lives Matter” and “We Can’t Breathe.”

The call for equality is the same. The difference is the first two slogans were written on signs carried by local protesters nearly 60 years ago.

Local and global protests calling for racial equality and police accountability call for action in addressing systemic racism.

But some – including several of those who participated in the Lancaster County protests during the turbulent 1960s – feel that the tide is turning, and real change is coming.


Rocky Springs Pool protests

The summer of 1963 was fraught with racial tension across the United States.

That summer was bookended with major national events. In June, the Governor of Alabama attempted to block Black students from registering for classes at the University of Alabama (the incident is referenced in Bob Dylan’s anthem “The Times They Are A-Changin’”), and in August, more than 200,000 people demonstrated in the nation’s capital during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Locally, protesters took to the streets to raise awareness about racial injustice. In Lancaster, equal opportunities didn’t exist for housing, employment and access to public spaces. Downtown department stores and local factories weren’t hiring Black people for any positions other than elevator operators or as janitors. And local swimming pools – such as the ones at Maple Grove, Brookside and Rocky Springs – were denying access to Black people.

In 1960, a young lawyer named Robert Pfannebecker began proceedings against Rocky Springs and two other local pools on behalf of a group of concerned citizens called the Freedoms Committee. The Freedoms Committee was focused on unfair housing opportunities and other issues dealing with racial injustice in the community.

“It was also important to the Black community to deal with the pools, because it was a visible way of dealing with racial prejudice,” says Pfannebecker, a partner with the law firm Zimmerman, Pfannebecker & Nuffort, who lives in Holtwood.

Volunteers recruited by the Freedoms Committee and other organizations set about attempting to prove the pools’ discriminatory policies by participating in a method known as “sandwich testing.” The method to establish proof of discrimination involved sending couples to the pool to attempt to gain admittance. The tests worked like this: First, a couple of white volunteers would successfully attempt to be admitted into the pool, then a Black couple would be sent to attempt to gain admittance and they would be denied, then a white couple would follow them and be admitted. All of these volunteers could later testify against the pools in court.

Pfannebecker filed a suit against Rocky Springs and followed with suits against Maple Grove and Brookside. The case against Maple Grove went all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court upheld the local court’s decision that the pool was practicing illegal segregation. The cases continued through the summer of 1963 and, though Pfannebecker won all the cases, the pools found ways to continue operating while barring Black people until all three pools eventually closed.

“But the result was the county built the county pool,” Pfannebecker says, which was open to everyone.

While Pfannebecker was leading yearslong courtroom battles, members of the community protested at the pool and other locations.

Leroy Hopkins, a historian and former professor of German at Millersville University who lives in Lancaster, was 21 in the summer of 1963 and participated in one of the protests at the Rocky Springs pool.

“I remember marching around the pool,” Hopkins says. “And it was hot. I remember white kids in the pool splashing water towards us. I had no problem with that because it was hot. There was some tension, though.”

Hopkins says the current movement feels different.

Leroy Hopkins

Leroy Hopkins is a history writer and retired Millersville University professor who participated in the Rocky Springs pool protests in 1963, is pictured on his porch on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

“There’s a sense of a paradigm shift,” says Hopkins. “When they start tearing down statues of Confederate generals – I didn’t think to live to see this kind of change.”

Elizabeth Ford was 15 years old in 1963 when she participated in the protests.

“We had protests in the streets. We had people that were fighting against unfair housing. We had protests against unfair employment. It wasn’t just that we were protesting because we couldn’t swim in a swimming pool at Rocky Springs,” says Ford, a retired early childhood advocate and education management administrator who lives in Mountville.

But she recalls the Rocky Springs protest vividly, “as if it was yesterday,” she says.

“There were a lot of whites there that were really upset with the concept of us wanting to integrate the swimming pool,” Ford says. “You would hear white people screaming at us. ‘Go home (n-word),’ ‘You don’t belong here’ and ‘Why don’t you go back to Africa.’ There were people there who were throwing rocks. People would actually spit on us.”

During all of this, Ford and others maintained Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent approach to protesting and followed techniques they were taught at Bethel A.M.E. Church.

“Of course it was hard. We’re human beings. We have feelings just like everybody else,” Ford says. “But because our training was built on a Christian foundation and the nonviolent principles of Martin Luther King Jr. and a sense of a belief system that was greater than ourselves, we were able to have a real sense of community that got us through the tough times.”

She believes in nonviolence but understands the pent-up frustrations of people that “have a history of over 400 years of suppressed emotion.”

Ford applauds the protests taking place today.

Elizabeth Ford

Elizabeth Ford poses in her Manor Township home Friday, July 17, 2020.

“I am feeling exceedingly optimistic. I am thrilled that millennials are taking the lead in terms of bringing about effective change,” she says. “This whole Black Lives Matter movement is so vital and so critical. For this multi-cultural experiment to work, we’ve got to value each and every one of us.”


Changing of the guard

In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black people, the modern day civil rights movement has made police accountability and reallocation of police funds a major talking point.

Gerald Wilson spent more than two decades on the Lancaster City police force. Wilson, a McCaskey graduate, who attended the high school during the riotous years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, notes the importance community-based policing.

“One of the first things I noticed about problems with police officers is – I assume because they just had all these riotous years – their solution to every problem was to get in and get out,” Wilson says. “We would respond to a disturbance, and the whole thing was get the person that was arguing snatch him up and get out. They never wanted to engage in conversation. Because I knew everybody in the community, people wanted to talk to me. They wanted to tell me what happened.”

Community policing is part of a larger conversation about cultural representation in law enforcement, medical fields and other institutions. 

“Community policing is a real, significant thing,” Wilson says. “I think it makes a tremendous difference.”

For the most part, local protests have been free of violence between demonstrators and police. The Lancaster protests climaxed in a violent outbreak that led to police officers pepper spraying the crowd on May 31, but since then have remained mostly incident-free.

Wilson says he has observed some of the protests and feels like both sides are doing a good job.

“I was so proud to see the number of Black and white kids together in unison for a cause. They really had a desire to let it be known that they care about this – that these police officers had killed these Black people,” Wilson says. “I was also proud of the leadership of the mayor herself and the chief of police.”

Wilson agrees with the protesters’ demands that things need to change in the police system.

“I think there are very valuable lessons learned now,” says Wilson. “Number one: the authorities are going to prosecute you. They’re not just going to fire you, they’re going to charge you criminally when you do these things. Number two: the citizens in your town are not going to back you up when you do these things.”

Wilson recalls his time on the force and says that in his day, juries would almost always side with police. He said that isn’t always the case now.

“(These officers) have tarnished the ability of the police to convey trustworthiness to a jury because now they know that cops lie. Think about what would have been written on the (George Floyd incident) police report if it wasn’t on video,” says Wilson, adding that the bottom line is “Good cops really don’t want bad cops on the force. It makes it bad for everyone.”

Gerald Wilson

Gerald Wilson poses at Art Park on North Prince Street at West Chestnut Street in Lancaster city Thursday, July 16, 2020.


Social media and social justice

In the ’60s, before you could pick up a cell phone, compose a Tweet and instantly broadcast a message to millions of people, churches and community centers were crucial in the spreading of messages, education and organization of the movement.

“Many of the teenagers at that time met at Bethel A.M.E. Church and the Crispus Attucks Community Center to get a sense of how we could let our voices be known that we were dissatisfied at how we as African Americans were being treated within the community,” says Ford.

Wilson also recalls the importance of those organizations.

“I have to give credit to Crispus Attucks and the Conestoga Elks,” says Wilson. “Both of those organizations had meetings with us African-American kids and our parents. Kids would get up and tell about situations that happened in school and community leaders would tell us ways to deal with these situations.”

Today social media is one of the major driving forces in expanding the messages of the modern civil rights movements and connecting people.

Pfannebecker recalls people being energized by the incidents with the pools, housing and employment issues, but says today’s protest have a different feel. And notes they have reached areas outside of the city in places such as Manheim, Quarryville and Strasburg.

“I think a lot of that has to do with the ability to instantly mobilize people by cell phone,” Pfannebecker says. “You have Twitter and people can document everything that happens. I think that’s a real change.”

Alysa Poindexter, Vice President of the Lancaster chapter of the NAACP, sees the connection with today’s movement to the ’60s, but also notes that the coronavirus pandemic has made this situation a little different.

“We have a pandemic that we’re dealing with on top of all the police brutality,” Poindexter says. “So those two things happening at once is really making this front different because not only are we fighting for our demands to breathe, we’re breathing through masks. We’re trying to breathe as Black people.”

Poindexter agrees the importance of social media and its ability to connect young people may be one of the reasons that the messages of this movement are much more far-reaching and impactful.

“The same thing was going on in the 1960s with the movement – except now we have social media. So now even more youth are getting involved,” says Poindexter. “More people can see what’s going on and have a bigger understanding when we’re making these calls for action. Social media is really putting this in front of people that typically wouldn’t use their voices or wouldn’t put their dollars behind something like this.”

Poindexter says social media has encouraged young people to use their voices.

“I think young leadership really comes from this place of having this feeling of needing to make a change,” says Poindexter. “Making our situations better than what we’ve seen in the past.”

Poindexter says that in speaking with other active members of the community and her family, the consensus is that this movement feels different than the ones that have gone before it.

“I have family members who were either involved or alive during the civil rights movements and we’ve all commented how this just feels different,” says Poindexter. “It feels like we’re moving forward. It feels like discussions are bigger. It feels like more change is happening.”