Ray Randolph is a well-known and highly respected Southeast Michigan businessman. His is a face I look forward to seeing at every Greater Farmington Area Chamber of Commerce event I attend. His affable spirit and booming voice lift me up every time. He is a “people person” through and through!
What many may not know about Ray is that he is also a civil rights hero. Sixty years ago, Ray was attending college in the segregated South. On February 22, 1960, inspired by the actions and rhetoric of civil rights pioneers like Martin Luther King, Ray and dozens of his fellow students from Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia, conducted a sit-in at the whites-only lunch counter in Thalhimer’s Department Store in downtown Richmond. The students were asked to leave. When they refused, 34 of them were arrested, jailed and convicted for trespassing.
The students appealed their case all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the convictions were eventually overturned in June 1963. That case, Randolph v. Virginia, bears Ray’s name. The students were famously dubbed “The Richmond 34,” and a historical marker commemorating their actions now stands on the site where the department store once stood.
The sit-in at Thalhimer’s Department Store inspired other nonviolent protests in Richmond. After nearly a year of boycotts, the downtown restaurant owners had had enough and quietly integrated all their main floor lunch counters. The protests continued, and soon they integrated their upstairs restaurants as well.
The Richmond 34 were truly brave. They risked not only the disgrace of a criminal conviction, but expulsion from school and the boycott of their own families’ businesses. At that time, violence against blacks was escalating. There were burnings, beatings, threats and lynchings. We owe an immeasurable debt to our friend Ray Randolph (who went on to become a Freedom Rider in 1961) and to all those civil rights activists of the ‘50s and ‘60s who dared to dream big and risked it all in the face of tremendous odds.
If you should see Ray around town, please tell him thanks!