Sit-in Movement of the 1960s

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Sit-in Movement of the 1960s

Despite the gains made in civil rights in the late 1950s, the Jim Crow system of legally imposed racial separation, or segregation , remained a fact of life in the southern states. One of many types of discrimination blacks faced was the widespread policy of variety stores prohibiting blacks from sitting down and being served at the stores' lunch counters with other customers.

In 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina , was a rapidly growing city of 120,000 that prided itself on the progressive nature of its race relations. Even so Greensboro had made only token steps toward integrating its schools (mixing black and white students). Lunch counters in Greensboro served blacks only if they stood in a designated area.

A simple act of protest

On February 1, 1960, Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond—freshmen students from the all-black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College (A & T)—entered the Woolworth store in downtown Greensboro. As planned, they first bought toothpaste and school supplies as proof that the store would sell them merchandise. They then took seats at the lunch counter, to the amazement of store employees and other patrons. They were refused service and told that black people had to stand at another counter to eat. The young men asked why Woolworth would sell them toothpaste but not coffee, and remained in their seats until the store closed. There was no confrontation with the police, although a reporter did arrive and news of the sit-in was reported by the local press.

The “Greensboro Four,” as they came to be known, had decided the night before to challenge the Jim Crow system of segregation at lunch counters. No civil rights organization had been involved. They were motivated simply by a sense of justice.

The movement grows

News of the act of protest spread rapidly over the A & T campus and throughout the city. The next day twenty-three additional students accompanied the Greensboro Four to Woolworth to sit at the lunch counter. Soon the demonstrators were working in shifts, and the sit-in

spread to Kress, the other downtown variety store. The demonstrators were well dressed and emphasized their commitment to nonviolence. The stores refused to serve them but did not ask the local police to arrest them.

By the end of the week the sit-ins had gained participants from Bennett College, a black women's college in town, and from Greensboro's white colleges. Support came in from Greensboro's black community and from the national civil rights organization Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which began to organize boycotts (refusal to do business with) of Woolworth and Kress. On February 8 sit-ins began in the neighboring city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Standoff in Greensboro

The city of Greensboro tried to mediate between the protesting students and the stores. For a month during negotiations the students ceased their sit-ins. Sit-ins resumed on April 1, though, because the stores had not desegregated the lunch counters. On April 2 the two stores closed their lunch counters. Greensboro's black community boycotted the stores and participated in street demonstrations. The picketing soon attracted a counterdemonstration organized by the Ku Klux Klan , a secret society of white supremacists known for their use of intimidation and terrorist methods against minority groups. The mostly peaceful confrontations between the two groups became a feature of life in downtown Greensboro.

Kress reopened its lunch counter later in the month but roped it off to allow store personnel to control access. When students peacefully moved into the restricted area, some forty-five of them were arrested, including three of the Greensboro Four. This was the only mass arrest during the sit-in campaign. The students were released without bail.

Soon the downtown stores found that their business was falling off; Woolworth's sales fell by 20 percent, partly due to the boycott but also because many whites were staying away to avoid trouble. Pressure for a settlement mounted. Finally on July 25, 1960, the stores desegregated their lunch counters.

Peaceful protests

The Greensboro sit-ins touched off the tidal wave of direct, confrontational nonviolent protest that marked the early 1960s (see Civil Disobedience ). Sit-in protests spread from Greensboro to other cities in North Carolina, then to Nashville, Tennessee, and to dozens of other southern cities as well as a number in the North. By the end of 1960 approximately one hundred southern cities had experienced sit-ins and roughly one-third of them had desegregated their lunch counters. More would follow in subsequent years as approximately seventy thousand people participated in the sit-in movement.

Organizing black students

The Greensboro sit-ins reflected the impatience of the younger generation of southern blacks with the pace of change in race relations. While the sit-ins were still going on in Greensboro, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized a meeting of black student leaders in Raleigh, North Carolina. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) and other civil rights leaders addressed the students, who decided to set up their own organization. Out of their efforts the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born. It quickly became one of the most active civil rights organizations of the 1960s and was involved in most of the major civil rights campaigns of the decade.