History Behind the Sit-ins

It all began in February of 1960 when four African American college freshman -Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond – refused to give up their seats at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. This event became nationwide news and student activism became a big part of the civil rights movement.

Atlanta at the time was known to house six historically black colleges. After the Greensboro sit-ins, students in Atlanta began to meet and discuss the idea of non-violent protesting. Student leaders including Lonnie King, Julian Bond, Herschelle Sullivan, Carol Long, and Ruby Doris Smith began to find other students to help organize lunch counter sit-ins. Before their plan went into action they appeared before the Atlanta University Center’s Council of Presidents, where they were told to put their plan in writing before implementing it.

On March 9, 1960, the members of the All-University Student Leadership Group published “An Appeal for Human Rights” in local newspapers. The appeal also appeared in the New York Times. Below is an excerpt of what was written in the appeal:

“We have joined our hearts, minds, and bodies in the cause of gaining those rights which are inherently ours as members of the human race and citizens of these United States. … We do not intend to wait placidly for those rights which are already legally ours to me meted out to us one at a time. Today’s youth will not sit by submissively, while being denied all the rights, privileges, and joys of life. … We must say in all candor that we plan to use every legal and nonviolent means at our disposal to secure full citizenship rights as members of this great Democracy of ours.”

The appeal became a big interest for the nation and got the attention of Governor Ernest Vandiver Jr. who was not moved by it. Atlanta’s mayor at the time, William B. Hartsfield, took into consideration what was said but did not take any steps to address the problems at hand.

Six days later the students organized sit-ins at ten lunch counters and cafeterias within Atlanta. Nearly 200 students participated. Of the 200 students, 83 were arrested and are charged with “Breach of Peace,” “Refusing to Leave Premises,” “Intimidating” (the restaurant owners), and “Conspiracy.” If they were convicted they would have faced 99 years in prison. There was no violence that occurred during the sit-ins, which deemed the protests as a success.

One of the primary sit-in spots was Rich’s Department Store, which is one of the biggest businesses at the time in the downtown business district. The students had asked Martin Luther King Jr. to join them at the Rich’s restaurant. His previous arrest in Alabama due to his Civil Movement activities did not slow down Dr. King. He agreed to the sit-in and was later taken to jail along with the students. They had created the “Jail-No-Bail” strategy and remained imprisoned, refusing to pay bond.

After the arrests of the students and Dr. King, the negotiations with the Atlanta civic leaders ultimately led to them not choosing not to agree to end segregation.

This lead to the protests to continue on for about three months. Many more students were arrested during this time but that did not  make them want to stop. On March 7, 1961, the student leaders of the protests, Lonnie King and Herschelle Sullivan, were told by the city leader’s, both African American and white, that a deal to desegregate the lunch counters would be set in motion in the upcoming fall.

The student leaders felt a sense of betrayal by their African American elders but ultimately agreed to the settlement.

Due to the protests, by 1962 the federal court ordered the desegregation of the city’s public pools and parks. Still, Atlanta was far behind many other cities in the south when it came down to desegregation.

Now, over 50 years later, when you come and visit the city of Atlanta you can relive those times at the Atlanta Civil Rights Museum. At the museum, there is a replica of a lunch counter. This model allows you to put on a pair of headphones and experience what was said during the sit-ins. I will link a short video of the lunch counter exhibit, courtesy of the AJC. The Atlanta sit-ins were a major movement of the time and have since then played a huge part in the history of Atlanta.

After reading a little about the history of the Atlanta sit-ins, I want you to imagine that you were one of the students participating in the lunch counter sit-ins. How would you have handled segregation based on what you read? Would you have different ideas on how to approach the idea of sit-ins? Please feel free to leave any thoughts and comments you have about the history of the Atlanta sit-ins below!

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