A New Civil Rights Movement

54d. The Sit-In Movement

North Carolina A&T University student newspaper
Students from across the country came together to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and organize sit-ins at counters throughout the South. This front page is from the North Carolina A&T University student newspaper.

By 1960, the Civil Rights Movement had gained strong momentum. The nonviolent measures employed by Martin Luther King Jr. helped African American activists win supporters across the country and throughout the world.

On February 1, 1960, a new tactic was added to the peaceful activists' strategy. Four African American college students walked up to a whites-only lunch counter at the local Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and asked for coffee. When service was refused, the students sat patiently. Despite threats and intimidation, the students sat quietly and waited to be served.

The civil rights sit-in was born.

No one participated in a sit-in of this sort without seriousness of purpose. The instructions were simple: sit quietly and wait to be served. Often the participants would be jeered and threatened by local customers. Sometimes they would be pelted with food or ketchup. Angry onlookers tried to provoke fights that never came. In the event of a physical attack, the student would curl up into a ball on the floor and take the punishment. Any violent reprisal would undermine the spirit of the sit-in. When the local police came to arrest the demonstrators, another line of students would take the vacated seats.

Freedom Rides
To challenge laws that kept interstate bus trips segregated, black and white students organized freedom rides through the South. The first such ride was interrupted when an angry mob attacked riders and destroyed their bus during a stop in Alabama.

Sit-in organizers believed that if the violence were only on the part of the white community, the world would see the righteousness of their cause. Before the end of the school year, over 1500 black demonstrators were arrested. But their sacrifice brought results. Slowly, but surely, restaurants throughout the South began to abandon their policies of segregation.

In April 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. sponsored a conference to discuss strategy. Students from the North and the South came together and formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Early leaders included Stokely Carmichael and Fannie Lou Hamer. The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) was a northern group of students led by James Farmer, which also endorsed direct action. These groups became the grassroots organizers of future sit-ins at lunch counters, wade-ins at segregated swimming pools, and pray-ins at white-only churches.

The Greensboro Four
By sitting in protest at an all-white lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, four college students sparked national interest in the push for civil rights.

Bolstered by the success of direct action, CORE activists planned the first freedom ride in 1961. To challenge laws mandating segregated interstate transportation, busloads of integrated black and white students rode through the South. The first freedom riders left Washington, D.C., in May 1961 en route to New Orleans. Several participants were arrested in bus stations. When the buses reached Anniston, Alabama, an angry mob slashed the tires on one bus and set it aflame. The riders on the other bus were violently attacked, and the freedom riders had to complete their journey by plane.

New Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered federal marshals to protect future freedom rides. Bowing to political and public pressure, the Interstate Commerce Commission soon banned segregation on interstate travel. Progress was slow indeed, but the wall between the races was gradually being eroded.

On the Web
Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (1960-66)
Formed in response to the Greensboro sit-ins, the mission of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (better known as SNCC, pronounced "snick") was to organize passive resistance measures, including marches, freedom rides, and sit-ins. This well-researched, well-illustrated website introduces the people, issues, and events surrounding SNCC.
Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael)
Kwame Ture (born Stokely Carmichael) was a fiery and controversial leader in the Civil Rights Movement. This 1998 obituary from the Los Angeles Times traces his life from nonviolent resistance to advocacy of "black power" to self-imposed exile. Included is a statement by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Civil Rights Leaders and the President
The John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, has assembled this collection of letters and telegrams sent to President Kennedy from noted civil rights leaders such as Roy Wilkins, and Martin Luther King Jr. Read a short synopsis, then click to view full-sized scans of these often-scathing documents including James Farmer's telegram to Kennedy on the violence in Alabama: "Even if guns of Alabama succeed in quelling nonviolent struggle in Birmingham it will rise up again in place after place until such time as the President of the United States overcomes his fear of speaking out and decides to act forcefully to secure freedom of Negro Americans."
The only thing they could do to me was to kill me, and it seemed like they'd been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.
-Fannie Lou Hamer, on why she participated in the Civil Rights Movement
Learn More...
If any one man inspired the methods of CORE and SNCC, it was one who lived halfway across the globe from the United States.
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