Sunday 5 June 2016

Lunch counter sit-ins: Students’ passive confrontation encouraged a new generation

The sit-in at Greensboro (Picture: Library of Congress)

The sit-in at Greensboro (Picture: Library of Congress)

In the fourth of a series of articles remembering the US Civil Rights Movement Unite Against Fascism’s joint secretary Weyman Bennett celebrates the student activists who organised against segregation in North Carolina in 1960

US Civil Rights Movement part 4: Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins
From Unity, anti-racist and anti-fascist magazine March-April 2016 / issue 14
Other articles in the US Civil Rights Movement series

Four young African Americans walked up to the whites only food counter at Woolworths in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down and each asked for a burger and a malt shake. The white restaurant manager refused to serve them and shut the cafe 30 minutes early.

In towns and cities across the US lunch counters like this were where many people sat for a quick meal in their lunch break. Across the Southern states they were denied to black people.

The four, Ezell Blair Jnr, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond, were students at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. Their action, starting on 1st February 1960, sparked off a new phase of Civil Rights struggle, the so-called sit-in movement.

One told the press, “We believe, since we buy books and papers in the other part of the store, we should get served in this part.”

They were greeted as heroes by their fellow students as they returned to their college to plan further protests.

The four were admirers of Martin Luther King and his political strategy of nonviolent protests, though they were not connected to his organisation. They were out to challenge the racist “Jim Crow” segregation laws, which stopped black people using the same facilities as white people across the Southern states of the US.

Over the next two days more and more black students joined the sit-in protest. Each day the students ordered food and each day the manager of the restaurant refused to serve them and closed it down.

On the third day of the protest the black students were joined by white women students from North Carolina’s Women’s College.

Within a week all segregated food counters throughout Greensboro were hit by sit-ins and had to close.

The action now involved hundreds of black and white students—their demand was simple: “No segregation”.

It was a long struggle. The Woolworths at Greensboro eventually agreed to desegregate its food counter in July 1960, having lost $200,000 of business, over 20% of its sales.

The Greensboro sit-ins inspired other students to organise their own direct actions. By 7th February there were 54 sit‑ins in 15 cities in nine states. Those involved were very brave. The tactic was simple: they sat down in a whites-only facility and waited to be served.

At first they were just ignored. But on 27th February a group of white teenagers attacked the students sitting-in. Police arrived and arrested the students for “disorderly conduct”.

From now on activists would often be threatened and attacked by customers or supporters of the Ku Klux Klan. Sometimes they were spat at or pelted with food.

Even when they were physically attacked, the protesters would curl up into a ball on the floor and not retaliate. Any violent reaction by the sit-in activists would be seen as breaking the strategy of nonviolent action. When the police came to arrest the demonstrators, another line of students would take their place.

“No matter what they did and how many they arrested, there was still a lunch counter full of students there,” explained Diane Nash, one of the leaders of the sit-in movement in Nashville.

The students were peaceful, but their actions were more directly confrontational.  They were frustrated at the slow pace of progress. Since the Montgomery Bus Boycott some Southern racists moved to counter-attack and strengthen segregation.

Those who had been arrested usually followed the “jail, not bail” tactic, refusing to pay unjust fines and thus doing time in prison.

The sit-ins got national media coverage  and pushed some of the student activists rapidly into leadership roles.

One of these was Robert Moses, who said he wanted to take action after seeing the “sullen, angry and determined look”of the protesters.

He said, “Before the Negro in the South had always looked on the defensive, cringing. This time they were taking the initiative. They were kids my age and I knew this had something to do with my own life.”

The movement inspired another future leader into action. Stokely Carmichael later recalled, “When I first heard about the Negroes sitting-in at lunch counters down South, I thought they were just a bunch of publicity hounds.

“But one night when I saw those young kids on TV, getting back up on the lunch counter stools after being knocked off them, sugar in their eyes, ketchup in their hair—well, something happened to me. Suddenly I was burning.”

Sit-ins followed across the South—segregated art galleries, swimming pools, libraries, museums, art galleries, parks and beaches were all targeted. There were even mass pray-ins at white-only church services. By the end of the summer over 70,000 people had taken part in the sit-ins. Before the end of the school year, over 1,500 black and 200 white demonstrators were arrested.

The protests gained massive exposure in the media and the companies, and corporations that operated Jim Crow came under massive pressure to desegregate.

The sit-ins were working. Every store in Atlanta, desegregated its facilities. Woolworths desegregated all its restaurants, beaches across Florida desegregated their beaches and churches across the South banned white-only services.

In the early stages of the sit-in movement the largest civil rights organisation, the National Association For the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), was reluctant to get involved. Although Martin Luther King was not involved in organising the protests, as soon as he heard about them he gave them his full support.

In April 1960 Martin Luther King Jr. sponsored a conference of students and young people to discuss the strategy and tactics needed to win the battle against Jim Crow. Out of that meeting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed.

SNCC supporters became the grassroots organisers of all the future sit-ins at lunch counters, wade-ins at segregated swimming pools, and the Freedom Rides in 1961. That story will be told in our next instalment of the history of the US Civil Rights Movement.

Other articles in the Civil Rights Movement series

Part 1: Brown v Board of Education: God bless the child

Part 2: Emmett Till: The ‘little nobody’ who shook the world

Part 3: The Montgomery Bus Boycott

Part 4: Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins

Part 5: The Freedom Rides

Part 6: The Birmingham Campaign & The March on Washington

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