by Todd Luck
Special to the NNPA News Wire from The Winston-Salem Chronicle
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Carl Wesley Matthews, the leader of the local lunch counter protest in 1960 that became the state’s first victory for the sit-in movement, passed away on Friday, Feb. 26.
A service for Matthews was held Thursday, March 3 at noon at Russell Funeral Home, 822 Carl Russell Ave.
Matthews, 84, started the sit-in at the downtown Kress store that led to the desegregation of lunch counters in Winston-Salem. The graduate of Winston-Salem Teachers College (now Winston-Salem State University) started his sit-in on Feb.8, just one week after the four students from NC A&T University started their sit-in at the Greensboro Woolworth.
“I knew from the time that I heard about the gentlemen in Greensboro sitting down, I knew from that moment that I would offer some support for them, that I would be a pinch hitter,” said.
During the same interview, he said he discussed doing a sit-in with five of his co-workers at a local trucking company, but by the time he started the sit-in, it was just him.
Though alone with White patrons threatening him, he later said he was not afraid, saying he felt the presence of a higher power and kept repeating the 23rd and 27th Psalm. But he was not alone for long, as he was joined by students from Winston-Salem Teachers College the next day and for the rest of the 107-day protest.
“I knew he needed some help,” said Victor Johnson Jr., one of the students who joined him.
Johnson, now a school board member, knew Matthews from the neighborhood. He described Matthews as being outspoken, adamant and even cocky.
Students from Atkins High School also participated in the sit-in, as did White students from Wake Forest College (now Wake Forest University). On Feb 23, 1960, eleven Black students and 10 White students were arrested for trespassing during a sit-in at the local Woolworth’s lunch counter. Mayor Marshall Kurfees appointed a “Goodwill Committee” of 10 Black and 10 White citizens to devise a way to end the protests, which resulted in a desegregation agreement for lunch counters in Winston-Salem.
On May 25, 1960 Matthews returned to the Kress lunch counter and was the first African-American served there. He said after he was finished, the waitress threw the glass he drank out of into a trashcan.
Former N.C. Rep. Larry Womble was also among the Winston-Salem Teachers College students in the sit-in. Womble, who was the Student Government Association president at the time, also knew Matthews from the neighborhood and got to know him more during the sit-ins. He said he considers him a local civil rights hero.
“He was always dedicated, very sincere, very committed to the cause and the plight of equality and trying to address discrimination and racism in this city,” said Womble. “Without him, I doubt we would have made the success and the progress in the speed in which we accomplished it. He was a fantastic person.”
Matthews, a 2003 Chronicle Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, also led efforts to desegregate Greyhound buses and the city’s courthouses. He was also active politically, registering a record number of Black voters in the 1960s and leading the local campaign for Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American to run for president.
AAP Host Karim Allah Sharif, who interviewed Matthews on his show for eight weeks in 1996, said that the historic sit-in victory became a “scale model” for the national civil rights movement. Despite that, he said Matthews got little recognition for it in the decades following the sit-in. Sharif said he was among those who successfully advocated for a state historic marker for the sit-in. On Feb. 23, 2000, Matthews attended a dedication of the state historic marker and other events held for the 40th anniversary of the sit-ins.
“He was a great man,” said Sharif. “Not too many are going to make the sacrifices that he made … for someone to make the sacrifices he made at the age he made them, that’s what makes a great human being.”
Womble, who chaired the sit-in anniversary, said he had talked with Matthews in recent weeks about getting a statue or bust of him erected, which he still hopes to do.
Matthews had three daughters, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His grandson Kali Webster said his family would miss him greatly and that they’re sorry that he passed before he achieved his dream of getting national recognition for his sit-in accomplishments like the Greensboro Four and other civil rights icons.
“That was his dream, and that wasn’t realized in his lifetime, but hopefully one day it will be realized,” he said.