America in Ferment: The Tumultuous 1960s
|Digital History ID 3324|
"Now is the time." These words became the credo and rallying cry for a generation. On Monday, February 1, 1960, four black freshmen at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College--Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McClain, Joseph McNeill, and David Richmond--walked into the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and sat down at the lunch counter. They asked for a cup of coffee. A waitress told them that she would only serve them if they stood.
Instead of walking away, the four college freshmen stayed in their seats until the lunch counter closed--giving birth to the "sit-in." The next morning, the four college students re-appeared at Woolworth's, accompanied by 25 fellow students. By the end of the week, protesters filled Woolworth's and other lunch counters in town. Now was their time, and they refused to end their nonviolent protest against inequality. Six months later, white city officials granted blacks the right to be served in a restaurant.
Although the four student protesters ascribed to Dr. King's doctrine of nonviolence, their opponents did not--assaulting the black students both verbally and physically. When the police finally arrived, they arrested black protesters, not the whites who tormented them.
By the end of February, lunch counter sit-ins had spread through 30 cities in seven Southern states. In Charlotte, North Carolina, a storekeeper unscrewed the seats from his lunch counter. Other stores roped-off seats so that every customer had to stand. Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Virginia, hastily passed anti-trespassing laws to stem the outbreak of sit-ins. Despite these efforts, the nonviolent student protests spread across the South. Students attacked segregated libraries, lunch counters, and other "public" facilities.
In April, some 142 student sit-in leaders from 11 states met in Raleigh, North Carolina, and voted to set up a new group to coordinate the sit-ins, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told the students that their willingness to go to jail would "be the thing to awaken the dozing conscience of many of our white brothers."
In the summer of 1960, sit-ins gave way to "wade-ins" at segregated public beaches. In Atlanta, Charlotte, Greensboro, and Nashville, black students lined up at white-only box offices of segregated movie theaters. Other students staged pray-ins (at all-white churches), study-ins (at segregated libraries), and apply-ins (at all-white businesses). By the end of 1960, 70,000 people had taken part in sit-ins in over 100 cities in 20 states. Police arrested and jailed more than 3,600 protesters, and authorities expelled 187 students from college because of their activities. Nevertheless, the new tactic worked. On March 21, 1960, lunch counters in San Antonio, Texas, were integrated. By August 1, lunch counters in 15 states had been integrated. By the end of the year, protesters had succeeded in integrating eating establishments in 108 cities.
The Greensboro sit-in initiated a new, activist phase in black America's struggle for equal rights. Fed up with the slow, legalistic approach that characterized the Civil Rights Movement in the past, Southern black college students began to attack Jim Crow directly. In the upper South, federal court orders and student sit-ins successfully desegregated lunch counters, theaters, hotels, public parks, churches, libraries, and beaches. But in three states--Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina--segregation in restaurants, hotels, and bus, train, and airplane terminals remained intact. Young civil rights activists launched new assaults against segregation in those states.