The Greenboro Sit-Ins of 1960 provoked all manner of emotions when they occurred and they remain an important part of civil rights history. Accepting and taking to the limit Martin Luther King’s idea of non-violence and peaceful protests, the sit-ins provoked the type of reaction the Civil Rights movement wanted – public condemnation of the treatment of those involved but also continuing to highlight the issue of desegregation in the South. The sit-ins started in 1960 at Greensboro, North Carolina.
In this city, on February 1st, 1960, four African American college students from North Carolina A+T College (an all-black college) went to get served in an all-white restaurant at Woolworth’s. The shop was open to all customers regardless of colour, but the restaurant was for whites only. They asked for food, were refused service and asked to leave. The students had done research on what they were doing and had read a handout on tactics of resistance by CORE. This direct action by Ezell Blair Jnr, David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil sparked off the so-called sit-ins. However, they were not heroes to all African American people. One Black lady, a dishwasher, behind the counter was heard to shout at them that they were “stupid, ignorant…….rabble-rousers, troublemakers.” The food counter did not serve them but the café shut 30 minutes early. When the four students returned to their campus, they were greeted as heroes by fellow students.
Other students followed their example over the following days in February. On February 2nd, 24 students took part in a sit-in at Woolworth’s food counter.
The above photo shows, left to right, Ronald Martin, Robert Patterson and (partially hidden) Mark Martin at the Woolworth’s counter on February 2nd. The white lady on the left arrived at the counter for lunch but refused to sit down with African Americans; she left.
On February 4th, black students were joined by white female students from the North Carolina’s Women’s College. Segregated food counters throughout Greensboro were affected.
Such was the chaos created that the restaurant in Woolworth’s was forced to close. In its initial stages, the NAACP was reluctant to get involved and one thought mooted by the students was not to allow the involvement of adults. More and more students across the South copied the Greensboro example of direct action. By February 7th, there were 54 sit-ins throughout the South in 15 cities in 9 states.
One reason put forward for this approach by the students was that they had seen little return from other movements and they wanted the pace of the drive for equality speeded up. A future civil right leader, Robert Moses, claimed that he was sparked into action by the “sullen, angry and determined look” of the protesters that differed so much from the “defensive, cringing” expression common to most photos of protesters in the South.
One of the reasons that Greensboro was so important to the Civil Rights movement is that the press took a great interest in it and the protest was fully reported around the country. It obviously took Martin Luther King by surprise as it was only when a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference informed King of what was going on that he assured the protesters of his full support.
How successful were the sit-ins?
The photos of students (both white and African American) having food poured over them at lunch counters by those opposed to what they wanted, had an effect on the public in northern, eastern and western states. Many were horrified that at a time when the dictatorship of the Soviet Union was made clear to all, that such behaviour could take place in America – the land of the free. However, as Eisenhower had wished for, changes in the South had to come from the heart and not be enforced by a court in Washington; the protests only hardened attitudes amongst white segregationists in the South.
The sit-ins did have some impact. Stores in Atlanta, the city most associated with King, desegregated. The Woolworth’s at Greensboro eventually agreed to desegregate its food counter in July 1960 having lost $200,000 dollars of business or 20% of its anticipated sales.
But their value was more in terms of the coverage by the press and television which these protests received. To further their actions, students established the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) with Marion Barry as its first leader. To some this was a negative move however as now there were four major civil rights movements in the South – NAACP, SCLC, CORE and SNCC. To which one were people more loyal to? There was even rancour in the ranks of the Civil Rights movement when King clashed with Roy Wilkins, leader of the NAACP, over the direction the movement was taking.
SNCC also involved itself with issues in the South. The position of the African Americans in the north had taken a backseat despite Ella Baker’s plea that SNCC should involve itself with housing, health care, voting and employment throughout America. Baker was the executive director of the SCLC. The NAACP never endorsed the sit-ins probably because of the different generations involved. The older NAACP leadership was clearly out of touch with the younger members of SNCC. Local NAACP groups did help the students with legal advice and bail money but this was done at an individual level not with the blessing of the NAACP hierarchy. One theory put forward for this is that those in the NAACP had jobs, mortgages etc and they feared losing all that they had if they were deemed outright supporters of direct action. As students, the youths had much less to lose.
Thurgood Marshall also derided the tactic, especially the tactic of jail-ins when the students deliberately cluttered up jails by refusing bail.
Regardless of this lack of support at the highest level in the NAACP, over 70,000 people took part in the sit-ins. They even spread to northern states such as Alabama and Ohio and the western state of Nevada. Sit-ins protested about segregated swimming pools, lunch counters, libraries, transport facilities, museums, art galleries, parks and beaches. By simply highlighting such practices, the students can claim to have played a significant part in the history of the civil rights movement.