Sit-ins: A turning point for America
January 29, 2010
Fifty years ago, four freshmen students at N.C. A&T helped turn American history in a new direction. Seizing on the simple proposition that it was absurd to be sought after as a customer at one store counter selling notebooks, then rejected at another counter selling coffee, they sought to dramatize the stupidity of segregation.
First, they went and bought their notebooks. Then they went to the lunch counter and asked for a cup of coffee. They were told, “We don’t serve colored.” They sat there, opening their books to study.
This act of defiance crystallized a determination by a new generation of African Americans never again to accept second-class citizenship. When the four students returned to the lunch counter the next day, they were joined by 19 others. The day after that there were 66; the following day 100. On Saturday, the fifth day, 1,000 black citizens of Greensboro marched . The city shut down. In the next eight weeks, sit-in demonstrations erupted in 53 cities in nine states. A revolution had begun.
Why did it occur at this time and place? And what explains the response? There had been other sit-ins –– in Washington during World War II, in Oklahoma in the early ’50s, in Durham in 1958. But never before had there been an event so combustible, spreading like a wildfire until it consumed the states of the old Confederacy and created the agenda that ultimately forced the federal government to respond, first with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, then with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These events essentially demolished the structure of Jim Crow that had reigned supreme in the South since the 1890s.
Part of the answer has to do with the consciousness of a new generation. Six years earlier, when Franklin McCain, David Richmond, Joseph McNeil and Ezell Blair were 13 or 14 years old, the Supreme Court had declared unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation was unconstitutional. But nothing happened. A promise had been tendered. No one followed through.
In the face of such hypocrisy, a burning anger simmered in the four A&T students, heightened by the sense that if they failed to act, they were complicit in perpetuating injustice.
Another part of the answer involved Greensboro itself. The city prided itself on its moderation. It boasted of a “progressive mystique,” where people practiced civility, treated each other politely and avoided the vicious racism of Mississippi. After all, Greensboro’s school board had voted 6-1 the night after Brown to enforce the decision. But why then had only one black student been permitted to go to Greensboro Senior High (now Grimsley) in 1957? And why had the school board moved every white student out of another school in 1958 to avoid their having to go to school with blacks? If there were a place to fight hypocrisy, what better place than Greensboro, the capital of civility?
But most important, the four freshmen at A&T were carrying the lessons they had learned all their lives from their parents, teachers and ministers. Black Greensboro had been fighting Jim Crow for decades. David Jones, president of Bennett College, insisted on hiring a desegregated construction crew to build new classrooms. He hosted Eleanor Roosevelt, making sure that the first lady spoke to a black and white audience.
Vance Chavis, a science teacher at Dudley High, reminded his students that he never rode in the back of the bus or sat in the “Buzzard’s Roost” at the downtown movies. He even had his homeroom students address voter registration envelopes to the black community before the school day began.
English teacher Nell Coley told students always to be the best they could be and never to let anyone keep them down.
Otis Hairston, minister of Shiloh Baptist, preached that the Gospel required social justice and offered the demonstrators use of his mimeograph machine.
There are those who see the sit-ins as a miracle that set in motion a new era for black people. But the sit-ins were simply a new way of expressing a very old determination. The struggle for freedom had been long.
O n Feb. 1, 1960, four freshmen from A&T gave it new life. The language may have changed, and its expression may have found a new form. But its roots were generations old.
William H. Chafe is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History at Duke University. He is the author of “Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom,” which won the first Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, as well as other books about American history.