Sit-ins and Standing Up
Four young men from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College changed their world when they decided to stand up for their own rights.
Their names were Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, David Richmond, and Joseph McNeil. They were freshmen at North Carolina A&T in the fall of 1959 and they became friends when they met that year. One of the things that they had in common was that they shared a disdain for the inequalities that surrounded them.
One event would cause them to act and start a movement that echoed throughout the country. During their winter break that year, each of the young men went home for Christmas. On his way back to school, Joseph McNeil went to get something to eat at the bus station in Richmond, VA. He approached the counter and they refused to serve him; he was told he had to go around to a counter in the back, to get served, because of the color of his skin--he was furious.
When he returned to school, he told his friends about the incident. After some debate, they decided that they were going to do something.
On February 1, 1960, they walked down to the F. W. Woolworth store, in Greensboro, NC, purchased some small items from the store, sat down at the lunch counter, and asked to be served.
I always thought that there was an organized structure behind them, but there were no adults and there was no major organization directing them on that day. They simply decided to take a stand.
This act caused a great stir in the city of Greensboro, NC and the next day more students joined them at the Woolworth's lunch counter. Eventually, the word got around and the courage to conduct sit-ins spread like wildfire.
Some time before the sit-in in Greensboro occurred people in Nashville, TN were already preparing for non-violent demonstrations.
A few years earlier an organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (a faith-based organization which started in 1914 in Europe) assisted the Montgomery bus boycott movement by sending staff members to work with Dr. King and others as they planned strategies during the boycott.
The Fellowship of Reconciliation produced a comic book, after the boycott, entitled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. The book sold over 250,000 copies and many college students got a hold of it.
James Lawson and Glen Smiley, who were with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, began teaching workshops that promoted nonviolence during demonstrations throughout the South and, in particular, in Nashville, TN. Local college students began to participate in significant numbers.
Students would pretend they were in a sit-in while others pretended to beat them and yelled at them to help them prepare for the real violence they were going to face during an actual sit-in. They practiced how to group together to protect one another and how to protect important parts of their bodies, like their heads.
In Nashville, John Lewis and Diane Nash were very active student leaders, while other organized sit-ins began to take place across the country...as the news of the Greensboro sit-in spread.
Within weeks, 50 cities across the United States experienced sit-in demonstrations and over 100 cities by the end of the year. Tallahassee, Raleigh, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, New York...
In fact, when asked "if he was advocating that Negroes in New York stay out of national chain stores like Woolworth's, the famous Congressman from Harlem, Adam Clayton Powell, answered:
"Oh, no. I'm advocating that American citizens interested in democracy stay out of these stores." (Eyes on the Prize, 1987)
In Nashville students continued their sit-ins and eventually the opposition got violent. On February 27, 1960 a group of men attacked the student protestors. They put out cigarettes on their backs, yanked them from their stools, and then beat them. When the police arrived they arrested eighty-one of the student protestors, not their attackers, and charged them with disorderly conduct.
Eventually, both Black and Caucasian patrons began to stay away from businesses and the economic impact was apparent.
After much protest and continued opposition, six lunch counters in Nashville started serving African-American customers in May of 1960. On July 25, 1960, F. W. Woolworth announced that it would desegregate all of its lunch counters, throughout the country.
Sit-ins continued in other cities and, eventually, movie theaters, hotels, and public buses were also scenes for additional protests.
The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) played very important roles in organizing and supporting more protests and sit-ins.
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Note: The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed in April of 1960 as a result of a meeting that was called by Ella Baker and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Raleigh, NC to discuss sit-ins. The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee became a completely independent organization and went on to further contribute to the Civil Rights Movement.
The Smithsonian Channel has produced a documentary about the four original Greensboro young men. Seizing Justice: The Greensboro 4
Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954 - 1965. Down Freedom's Main Line: The Movement's Next Generation. Penguin Books, 1987.
The Fellowship of Reconciliation. http://forusa.org/about/history