ALEXANDRIA, Va. (WUSA9) -- In Alexandria 75 years ago, African Americans were not even allowed to use the public library.

On Thursday, the city paid tribute to the five men who put their own bodies on the line to change that.

Organizers commemorated the 75th anniversary of a civil rights protest that helped set the tone for decades of non-violent demonstrations at lunch counters and on streets.

96-year-old Ferdinand Day was friends with the five men who risked their lives on the principal that African Americans should be allowed to check out books from the then Whites Only public library.

"Alexandria was a typical Southern city with all the problems of the Deep South", Day said, describing the town at the time of the protest.

But Day's friends were ready for a change in their community, and so, they took action.

"They went to the shelf, took down a book, sat down at a table, and began to read." Rose Timmons Dawson, who now serves as the Alexandria Library's director, described the small action the men took that became a bold gesture: " and for that, police arrested the men and charged them with disturbing the peace."

Organizers of the anniversary celebrations say that the main point is that we can all learn from the past, and that the city, the region, and the county can be better.

"Every generation, there are changes that will have to occur." Dawson said. If not for the bravery of those five men, Dawson explained, she wouldn't be there, and the library wouldn't be a community hub that offers equal access to all.