- Associated Press - Sunday, July 3, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The rain couldn’t dampen Elizabeth Johnson Rice’s joy. Walking up 7th Street next to her brother, she smiled. Standing behind the podium addressing a crowd of about 75, her smile beamed.

“The time had come to make a statement,” said Johnson Rice. “If we had not gotten arrested, things may not have changed.”

Johnson Rice and 33 others who were Virginia Union University students in 1960 were honored Tuesday at the unveiling on Broad Street between 6th and 7th streets of a historical marker commemorating their sit-in for civil rights.

More than 200 VUU students came downtown on Feb. 20, 1960, and entered the “Whites Only” lunch counter at Thalhimers department store. After being denied service, they stayed until the store closed.

Two days later, 34 of the students, four of whom were on hand Tuesday, were arrested and charged with trespassing. Their convictions were eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, a significant victory for the civil rights movement.

“It was a movement that had a lasting impact on desegregation of Richmond and the overall civil rights movement. It’s a historic moment in our history that should be recognized and should not be forgotten,” said Reginald Gordon, director of the Office of Community Wealth Building for the city of Richmond.

Each of the four members of the “Richmond 34” who were present Tuesday addressed the crowd. They were appreciative of the community’s support but stressed that the fight for civil rights isn’t over.

“Even though we’re commemorating an event today, if you stop to look at the efforts being made now to take away the vote from black people… those patterns are coming back.” said Ford T. Johnson Jr., one of the 34 students. Johnson, who now lives in Clarksburg, Md., is the brother of Johnson Rice.

Raymond B. Randolph Jr., another ex-student who now lives in Farmington Hills, Mich., became emotional when talking about the bond black and white police officers now share. He said that while times have changed in 56 years but there’s still room to grow.

“They were rough times and they’re still here,” he said during a reception in Richmond CenterStage before the ceremony.

Joining Johnson Rice, Johnson, Randolph Jr. was Wendell T. Foster Jr. of Richmond. The widow of John J. McCall, Geneva McCall, was also there.

The 34 students had their names read aloud by Stephanie Hooks, a Virginia Union alumna.

“As I read their names, I present 34 examples that ordinary people can do extraordinary things,” Hooks said.

Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt, the granddaughter of William B. Thalhimer Jr., who owned Thallhimers at the time, spoke at the ceremony and stressed the complexity of the situation and the different factors that go into change. She and Johnson Rice have become friends over the years and have nicknamed one another “Big E” and “Little E.”

Johnson Rice, who now lives in Midlothian, was asked what she wants people to take away from the marker and its significance.

“I want them to get out of it that 34 students, and others with them who were not arrested, made a statement that day that changed the life in Richmond, Va., and perhaps around the world and that it’s something that can be commemorated and remembered,” she said.

VUU professor Raymond Hylton read the text of the marker, which was then unveiled to cheers.

“We’ll read the plaque, but it should remind us that the struggle is never over,” said Johnson.

___

Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com

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