MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Joseph Peterson was a college student on Feb. 25, 1960 when he and other African-American students walked to the whites-only lunch counter at the Montgomery County Courthouse, sat down and asked to be served.
He and eight other students at what is now Alabama State University were later expelled for leading the state’s first known sit-in protest against segregation.
Fifty-nine years after the protest, Peterson and other students were honored in the city. Montgomery city and county leaders presented resolutions to ASU President Quinton Ross expressing sorrow for the “wrongs from the past.”
“I feel good about it,” Peterson, now 83, said at the ceremony. “I never really thought it would happen and this is just an opportunity for Montgomery to do the right thing and for the state of Alabama to do the right thing” Peterson said.
Civil rights attorney Fred Gray said the students were not arrested but were suspended or expelled from the university at the behest of the state’s white governor. The resolutions expressed sorrow for the actions against the students.
Asked if the resolutions were an apology, Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange noted the punishments against the students were taken by the state.
“What we want to say is it is wrong,” Strange said.
Montgomery County Commission Chairman Elton Dean called it an apology.
“I’m not going to try to be politically correct at all. We are sorry. We apologize,” Dean said.
Peterson said he learned from the newspaper that he was expelled and lost his GI Bill benefits. But he has no regrets about participating.
“The whole South needed to change,” Peterson said.
He later graduated from New York University and worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Joe Reed, who participated in the sit-in and was suspended, said local officials shut down the cafe after the students walked inside.
Reed recalled that when he sat down that day, a white woman who was eating at the cafe looked up, saw him and quickly scurried away.
State academic officials announced last year that they had expunged the students’ academic records.