White House Sit-In Memories

Two of the other participants in the March 11, 1965 White House sit-in have recently shared their memories of the event:

I do remember your mother and can see her face in my mind. If my memory is right, she worked as a volunteer at the Washington SNCC office, as did I. Was she in school at that time?

I truly have no recollection of how we contacted people to join us in the tourist line the next morning at the White House. I do remember that the SNCC staff advised against doing a sit-in, only because they felt it might take the spot light off of Selma. Being a strong-willed teenager, I rejected their advise and didn’t tell them we were going ahead with it.

I must have contacted the High School SNCC leaders, as we had a loose alliance of “Friends of SNCC” at different schools. Some folks who sat in with us just seemed to materialize that morning at St. John’s Church (I have no earthly idea how we got in to their fellowship hall but maybe they just kept it open). I didn’t know some of the folks in the sit-in.

Two of the juveniles (whose names didn’t appear in police reports) were me and my brother, Barry. I believe he was 14 at the time and I had recently turned 16.I think Eugene was also a juvenile as he was still in high school but maybe he was already 18 at the time. I was given juvenile probation for a federal felony. After I left Washington DC in early 1997 [1967?] to move to North Carolina, I completely lost track of what happened to my fellow sit-iners. I only learned that they had to serve prison terms from an older lady, Leah Washington, who was serving a short shift for her arrest in the Poor Peoples encampment.

We were not prepared in any way for what we did that morning, except we wanted to protest the beatings of John Lewis and those on the bridge in Selma. I think one person had a couple of candy bars we divided up. We lost my brother and a few others when they couldn’t last any more and needed to go to the bathroom. We sent out a note with him to call the SNCC office, which I think was grabbed out of his hand. Barry refused to identify himself to the press but had “Wells” written on his gym shoes. We had no concrete idea about where to plunk outselves down inside the White House—few of us had ever been in there before. As it looked like our tour was going to end, we decided it was “now or never” and sat down near the Red Room, I think. It turned out to be a somewhat strategic position. Evidently Lady Bird and her friends were planning an evening at the White House movie theater and we were blocking their way. The whole thing sent White House security into a panic and it took them a good while to decide how to remove us. As I recall, they faked out the press and said we were being escorted out from one end of the property and then assembled ten paddy wagons to another exit, placing only a couple of us in each one. That way, the press would have to make a chase around ten precincts to find us. I think they wanted to avoid a public arrest event, which was pretty smart…

— Lynn Wells Rumley, personal email, May 16, 2013

Once I went to your memorial site for your Mom, I remembered more instantly. She went to Catholic University and that brought back memories of our working in the SNCC office. Thanks so much for sharing these photos with me and my brother, who is the inidentified “boy” (very much so) in the 3rd photo. I believe that “Chico” is in fact Eugene Harrison, but Barry will know better. The two of them left early, about 3 pm.

My Dad, Hudson Wells, was driving home in his paint truck around 4 or 4:30 pm when a news bulletin came on the radio about the sit-in. When the reporter said that one boy had come out of the White House and his gym shoes gave him away, Dad knew we hadn’t been to school that day!

— Lynn Wells Rumley, personal email, May 17, 2013

Guess we were all a little ahead of our tender years, but as I recall things, the fight was on, and it wasn’t a time for holding back. Skipping school to join the demonstration was a no-brainer. Lynn, I think you can get most of the credit for cooking up the sit-in.

St. Johns remained open during the entire White House vigil, so that was the place to gather. My recollection is that you put it out there for discussion, and it just seemed so….right. So we just walked over and got on with it, ad-libbing, and looking for a suitable place to sit. I think we were more or less heading toward the end of the tour and realized we better just sit down. We did the usual protocol, linked arms, and started singing. The White House security people seemed flabbergasted and confused, cordoned us off, and peeped in and out, consulting one another as higher-ups were called in (or so it appeared).

Eugene, who was called was called “Rick” (that’s him sitting next to me in the photo), and I were the youngest. I don’t know who this “Chico” character is but I don’t remember him being there. None of us knew whether the outside world had any idea that we were inside the White House, but the ongoing vigil always had some press coverage, so it was decided that Rick and I would go out, find a reporter, and give a press release (Lynn, did you write it?). So we were the designated emissaries, plus it’s true that we both needed to pee.

When we got outside the gate, we were swarmed by reporters and photographers. We might have spent more time chatting with the press, but for God’s sake, we need a bathroom! After that, Rick and I said our goodbyes. I don’t know if I ever saw him again after that, but he was a great guy. He lived in Chillum, and I think he went to Hawthorne. I picked up an Evening Star at the D.C. Transit depot at Chevy Chase Circle on the way home, and saw the photo (one of the ones you posted, Matthew) of a “14 year old boy who refused to identify himself” under the headline. Back in Garrett Park, we awaited news of what had happened to Lynn and the rest of the demonstrators. And into the night it went….

— Barry Wells, personal email, May 18, 2013

Talking with Lynn recently about this, I recalled that the reason for the sit-in had to do with us feeling the need to elicit quick action from President Johnson to protect the Selma marchers, specifically, to send troops.  The vigil outside the White House had been going on for a number of days, without results.  There are probably numerous news accounts from that time about the greater march/vigil.

— Barry Wells, personal email, June 4, 2013

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