An image from the Penney Protest Campaign, 1961

The Penney Picketing Campaign was a much remembered event in civil rights struggles in Champaign-Urbana in which African-Americans protested unfair employment practices in downtown Champaign. The description of the campaign comes from the newsletter of the group that organized the protest, the Council for Community Integration, volume 3, no. 3, May 1961.

JC Pennys Discrimination Protest April 7, 1961. Image courtesy City of Champaign 150th Anniversary Celebration Committee. Original of image may be from Champaign County Historical Archives. Click image to download high-resolution copy.

Probably the most .significant, and certainly the most successful, blow against discrimination in the recent history of Champaign came to a successful conclusion on Wednesday, April 26. That day saw the signing of a written agreement between the management of the new J. C. Penney store and the Negro community, represented by its ministers under the leadership of Rev. J. E. Graves, for the prompt employment of at least one Negro salesperson. Immediately pledges were made by responsible officers of all the other major Champaign department employ
Negroes' in sales positions either by specified dates·or as vacancies occur. Goldblatts'
Country Fair store, on Saturday, April 29 had Negro sales clerks actually
at work in their housewares, gloves and "bargain" departments. It is hoped that
by the time this NEWSLETTER is received other stores will also have Negro sales personnel
on their payrolls.
This major breakthrough came about as the direct result of the picketing demonstration
planned and carried out by the Negro community under the leadership of its ministers.
Rev. Graves' statement issued on April 6 - Grand Opening Day at Penney's,
when the picket line made its dramatic appearance - explained the spontaneous nature
of the movement and set the tone of dignity, non-violence and brotherhood which
characterized the entire 3-week demonstration. He pointed out that in its correspondence with the Human Relations Commission prior to actual hiring of personnel, the had given assurances -that the chain's national policy of merit ..
employment would be followed; that when. hiring began it was conducted through the
State Employment Service, with age and education the only qualifications stated that
referrals were made by the Employment Service on a non-discriminatory basis and 12 to
15 Negroes were referred - some with outstanding qualifications of personality, training
and experience. -When, against this background, all of the Negro sales and
clerical applicants were rejected (though 3 Negroes were hired for stockroom work),
it became apparent that the new store was, in fact, following the local pattern of
job discrimination. The Negro community ,was disappointed and angry, and these feelings
found- expression in the ad hoc group which came together at the call of the ministers
and developed the plan f~ a picketing demonstration. The initial day's success was
so striking and the response so positive that the group decided to continue through to
the weekend. Each successive day brought new support from both Negroes and whites
until it became clear that the walk would. continue until its purpose was attained.
Space limitations preclude a full description of this magnificent undertaking. A
few observations should be made, however; First,this campaign originated with and
was conducted by Negroes, speaking clearly and forcefully in their own behalf on an
iswae of moral as well as practical, bread-and-butter importance. Second, as an
itlcreasing number of Negroes became aware of,the basic issue, the number available
fbr picketing increased, and the enthusiasm, ·of the movement mounted. Third, the
picket line was not crossed by Negroes, and-was respected by a large segment of the
white community. Fourth, many whites not previously involved in interracial activities
came forth with support of various kinds. Fifth; on the actual picket line
there were no incidents of violence or serious hostility and many expressions of
sympathy and approval. Sixth, the city administration and·police force acted impartially
and aided the Negroes in making sure there were no untoward incidents.
Seventh, the Champaign department store managements treated the campaign as a joint problem, not as one pertaining only to Penney's, so that when agreement was reached
it resulted in ',,-hac promises to be a real change in the community pattern ... Eighth,
the picketing .more was organized, maintained and succeeded in its purpose of calling
public attention to the unfairness of employment discrimination despite a virtual
total censorship of all news coverage of it by the local press and the dominant
radio and TV stations. As a result of many written and telephoned protests, both
newspapers eventually gave some coverage to the subject in the Letters to the Editor
columns. Ninth, the merchants' agreements to begin non-discriminatory hiring followed_
shortly after the huge F E P rally further demonstrated Negro determination
and white support for fair employment, and the subsequent development of plans by
the Negro leaders to extend the picketing to include other downtown stores.
As the decision was reached to terminate the picketing, on the basis of the merchants'
pledges, the organization of the Champaign-Urbana Improvement Association was announced,
with Rev. Graves as Chairman. This organization will be a continuing means for
expressing the point of view developed during recent weeks as new problems arise.
The CCI extends congratulations to Rev. Graves and the other ministers who were
active in leading this significant movement, who spent endless hours in their
parked cars supervising "the line" and serving as spokesmen, _and who themselves
marched in their ministerial vestments on the last Friday; to George Pope, who
acted as "picket captain!' and undertook the important duty of training the volunteers
in picketing discipline; to Mary Alexander, who handled the arduous task of scheduling
the picketers so that there. were always enough on duty; ,to John Penn, who handled
publicity; to 13,11 those who arranged transportation, created the signs with their
variety of pertinent messages, and did all the other hard work required by a large,
long-continued activity of this kind; and 1:9 the hug.e number of individuals who
gave of their time, courage and physical ,energy in walking the many weary miles.
CCI members are urged to let the local stores know, by letters or persone1 statements,
that they approve the new policy on hiring, and expect it to be put into effect
promptly. Goldblatts, in particular, should be commended, as the first to break
the community pattern.

Source: Carol Lewis Papers