The lunch-counter sit-ins

October 19, 2012

Brian Jones explains how the civil rights movement got a new burst of energy through the actions of four college students in Greensboro, N.C.

THE LUNCH counter sit-ins--of African Americans seated at whites-only lunch counters and restaurants until they were served--became one of the most enduring images of the civil rights movement in the U.S. South.

The first sit-in, undertaken by just four students from a technical college in Greensboro, N.C., opened a new phase of mass action in the civil rights movement. The simple act of sitting down at the whites-only lunch counter--Blacks were required to stand and eat--set an example for young people all over the country who were looking for a way to challenge Jim Crow segregation. Within a single year, some 50,000 people had participated in one or more sit-ins.

The U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling to desegregate schools and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-57 are often perceived as the beginning of the movement. But no mass actions followed. Instead, the rest of the decade was marked by a racist backlash. Through terrorism, intimidation and subterfuge, Southern whites tried to squash any hope that Jim Crow segregation might be vulnerable.

The History of Black America

Historian C. Vann Woodward describes how, all over the South, the "lights of reason and tolerance and moderation began to go out." He continued:

During 1957, 1958 and 1959, a fever of rebellion and malaise of fear spread over the region. Books were banned, libraries were purged, newspapers were slanted, magazines disappeared from stands, television programs were withheld, films were excluded. Teachers, preachers, and college professors were questioned, harassed, and many were driven from their positions or fled the South. The NAACP was virtually driven underground in some states.

The effort to carry out the Supreme Court's desegregation orders came screeching to a halt. The number of school districts that were desegregated rose to 712 in the first few years after the Brown decision, but then plunged to only 17 by 1960.

This historic logjam was broken not by Martin Luther King, Jr., nor by the NAACP, nor by any of the established and venerated civil rights leaders and organizations. It was broken by the direct action of fed-up college students.

LITTLE ACTUALLY occurred at the lunch counter on that first day. The waitress predictably told the four youths, "We don't serve colored here." "I beg to disagree with you," responded Ezell Blair, pointing out that they had already been served when they purchased school supplies moments earlier.

Management instructed the waitress to ignore them. An older white woman patted the students on the back. "Ah, you should have done it 10 years ago," she told them. "It's a good thing I think you're doing."

Other whites were not so encouraging; they hurled familiar insults: "nasty, dirty niggers," "you don't belong here." A Black dishwasher behind the counter opposed the action. "That's why we can't get anyplace today," she told the four, "because of people like you, rabble-rousers, troublemakers...This counter is reserved for white people, it always has been, and you are well aware of that. So why don't you go on and stop making trouble?"

The four remained seated until the store closed, but they returned to Woolworth's the next day with 23 students. The day after that, they brought 63 students, occupying nearly every seat at the lunch counter.

The effect of the protests was felt far beyond Greensboro. The "sit-ins" were national news. Within two weeks, students sat in at lunch counters in some 15 different cities in five Southern states. Within the first year, they spread to 100 Southern cities. Between 1961 and 1963, 20,000 people were arrested, with 15,000 imprisoned in 1963 alone.

Daring to defy Jim Crow and winning, the students changed the way the nation saw them, and, importantly, they changed the way they saw themselves. In the words of one participant: "I myself desegregated a lunch counter, not somebody else, not some big man, some powerful man, but little me. I walked the picket line, and I sat in, and the walls of segregation toppled."

Franklin McCain, thinking back on that first Greensboro sit-in, remembered the change: "I probably felt better that day than I've ever felt in my life. I felt as though I had gained my manhood, so to speak."

By May 1960, four theaters and six lunch counters were desegregated in Nashville. Seven cities in Tennessee had at least some desegregated lunch counters by summer.

Success encouraged activists to push for more. As historian Harvard Sitkoff explains:

[T]he student movement focused on eradicating other vestiges of Jim Crow and experimented with new forms of nonviolent direct action. There were "kneel-ins" in churches, "sleep-ins" in motel lobbies, "swim-ins" in pools, "wade-ins" on restricted beaches, "read-ins" at public libraries, "play-ins" in parks, even "watch-ins" in movie theaters...

These demonstrations fundamentally transformed the use of public accommodations in the border and upper South states, where by the end of 1961, nearly 200 cities had begun to desegregate.

THE SIT-in movement challenged the established civil rights organizations and leaders. It eventually forced them to support it, but in the first instance, students almost always had to push past the "old guard," or go around them altogether.

In Atlanta, Jeremy Larner recalled that the established civil rights leaders called for a meeting with the students and told them:

So you see, kids, we've been in this a long time. We want the same things you do, but we know by now they can't be gotten overnight. It's our experience that you have to work slowly to get lasting results. We'd hate to see your movement backfire and spoil the things we've worked so hard for. You need guidance, and we hope you'll have the vision to accept it.

The adults weren't just more conservative because they were older. The anti-communist witch-hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy created an atmosphere of intimidation that cowed efforts to organize against segregation. Tragically, the NAACP and the labor federation, the AFL-CIO, both collaborated in the witch-hunts. The AFL-CIO expelled 1 million of its own members in the effort to rid itself of "communist" influence. The NAACP did a similar purge, and didn't hesitate to expel one of its founders, WEB DuBois.

Thus, with many of the most militant, principled activists removed, both organizations became significantly more conservative. The NAACP focused on challenging segregation in the courts, and specifically cautioned activists not to attempt to disobey the Jim Crow laws.

In 1947, when the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) attempted a campaign to desegregate lunch counters in Northern and Midwestern cities, (consciously modeled on the sit-down strikes of the 1930s) the NAACP warned that "[a] disobedience movement on the part of Negroes and their white allies, if employed in the South, would result in wholesale slaughter with no good achieved."

But the younger generation wasn't cowed by the witch-hunts, nor prepared accept segregation. As far as they were concerned, change was overdue.

The anti-colonial struggles in Africa were a source of inspiration. In 1960 alone, some 17 African nations gained independence from European powers. If Black people could throw off white domination over there, why not here? Author James Baldwin wasn't the only one who felt that "[a]ll of Africa will be free before we can get a lousy cup of coffee!"

In 1960, Howard Zinn was a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta. He would later serve as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was eventually fired for supporting the student movement. Zinn summed up the feeling among the students:

Impatience was the mood of the young sit-in demonstrators: impatience with the courts, with the national and local governments, with negotiation and conciliation, with traditional Negro organizations and the old Negro leadership, with the unbearably slow pace of desegregation in a century of accelerated social change.

Many of the students accepted the framework of the Cold War and the righteousness of the struggle against "communism," even as they challenged their elders in practice. Diane Nash, one of the first to participate in a sit-in in Nashville, connected the civil rights struggle to military competition with the Russians, stating that if Blacks were given equal education, "maybe some day, a Negro will invent one of our missiles."

Taken purely on the level of ideas, the early demonstrations were not "radical." Students dressed up for the protests to emphasize their respectability. They aimed not to tear down American capitalism, but to show that they deserved to be included in it.

IN APRIL 1960, veteran activist Ella Baker convened 150 student activists from all over the South, plus 19 delegates from Northern colleges and approximately 50 representatives from the American Friends Service Committee for the purpose of creating an organization to strengthen and extend the student movement.

The founding statement of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) shows the degree to which the principal actors at that stage of the struggle viewed their actions primarily in moral and religious terms:

We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the presupposition of our faith, and the manner of our action. Nonviolence as it grows from Judaic-Christian tradition seeks a social order of justice permeated by love. Integration of human endeavor represents the crucial first step toward such a society.

Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice. The redemptive community supersedes systems of gross social immorality.

Certainly not all participants raised nonviolence to the level of a principle. Students who were not religious and were already drawn to radical politics viewed nonviolence as a tactic. Connie Curry, who is white, was elected as one of the non-student advisers (along with Ella Baker) to SNCC in its early days. "See, we used to have argument after argument," she remembered, "of whether or not nonviolence was a technique or a way of life, and that was probably one of the biggest debates in the early days of SNCC."

Still, the dominance of religious and moral ideas made it easy for some on the left to write off the student movement--it was too Christian, too liberal, it believed in the government and the Democratic Party.

But ideas always lag behind action. The students had set themselves the task of ending Jim Crow, and committed themselves to whatever it would take to win. Inevitably, that struggle would shape their ideas. In a very short time, SNCC became the most radical of all the civil rights organizations. Those who had chosen to abstain from the struggle because of its formally liberal ideas were doomed to irrelevance.

From its inception, SNCC members were on the front lines of the struggle. They were the first to put themselves in harm's way, the first to go to jail. They dared to send their organizers into the Deep South to register voters and defy Jim Crow, the police and the Ku Klux Klan. They did all of this for little or no pay, surviving on donated meals and sleeping on floors or the occasional bed, if one was offered.

As early as 1961, the experience of organizing against Jim Crow, facing racist violence and suffering the foot-dragging of the federal government and the Democratic Party, produced a profound ideological shift among SNCC activists. Tom Hayden sat in on a SNCC meeting in Mississippi that year and reported the activists discussed that:

[b]eyond lunch counter desegregation, there are more serious evils which must be ripped out by any means; exploitation, socially destructive capital, evil political and legal structure, and myopic liberalism which is anti-revolutionary. Revolution permeates discuss like never before.

By 1963, SNCC members were organizing study groups on Marxism, the Cuban revolution and African liberation struggles. At their founding convention, they had allowed trade union allies to prevent Bayard Rustin from speaking because of his socialist background. Now, a few years later, ironically, the same SNCC members considered Rustin and Martin Luther King too conservative, and criticized them from the left.

When King dismissed an aide in 1963 because of previous connections with the Communist Party, SNCC activists were enraged. Stokely Carmichael argued that Negro moderates must "stop taking a defensive stand on communism!" That same year, SNCC leaders traveled to Africa to meet with anti-colonial leaders, and with Malcolm X.

The 50th anniversary of the lunch counter sit-ins comes at a time when a majority of voters put an African American in the White House because he promised "change." But we should never forget how change really happens.

"[T]he really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House," Howard Zinn once said, "but who is sitting in--in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories."

Segregation wasn't destroyed by the Kennedys. It wasn't destroyed by the Supreme Court. At the end of the day, segregation was overthrown by mass, direct action. And it's quite often that such mass movements start small--say, with just four people.

First published at on February 1, 2010.

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