The Influence behind the Atlanta Sit-Ins

Greensboro Lunch Counter

In the 1960’s segregation was still a prominent issue across the southern United States. On February 1, 1960, four African American students decided to take a stand against segregation by participating in a non-violent protest. They decided to sit at a segregated lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. This protest created a movement that spread to many college towns throughout the southern region.

The four students who planned the first sit-in in Greensboro were Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil,they later became known as the “Greensboro Four”. They were all students enrolled at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. They had many influences for the non-violent protests, the biggest influence being Mohandas Gandhi.

The four young men planned the protest cautiously and got the help from a local white businessman, Ralph Johns. They put their plan into action and sat down at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. The policy during the time was to refuse service to anyone except white people. The four men patiently sat there and refused to give up their seats. The police arrived a short time later but were unable to take action due to the lack of provocation. Ralph Johns had called the media who arrived shortly after to broadcast the events on television. The four students stayed put until the store closed.

The next day the Greensboro Four returned to Woolworth’s when it opened and this time with more students from other local colleges. They were denied service yet again, while they waited they would study and do their school work. Ezell Blair Jr. spoke to an interviewer and said, “Negro adults have been complacent and fearful … It is time for someone to wake up and change the situation …and we decided to start here.”

Image of present day Woolworth's
Present day Woolworth’s

By February 5, 1960, about 300 students had joined the lunch counter sit-ins at Woolworth’s. The news media covered the Greensboro sit-ins extensively, which led to several other college towns across the South participating in non-violent protests. Students of all races would protest against segregation at many places including beaches, hotels, libraries and several other establishments. Many students were arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace.

The Ku Klux Klan, led by George Dorsett – North Carolina’s official State Chaplain – reacted to the movement by heckling and harassing the students. The students were not affected by this. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sent organizers to help train the students in tactics and strategies of Nonviolent Resistance.

By the end of March the movement had spread to 55 cities in 13 states. National media coverage of the sit-ins increased awareness of the struggle of civil rights for African Americans.

After reading about the Greensboro sit-ins, Atlanta University Center students Lonnie King, Julian Bond and Joseph Pierce formed the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights (COAHR). They were joined by several other students and eventually a movement policy council was organized with three representatives from each of the six Atlanta colleges – Atlanta University, Interdenominational Theologic Center, Clark, Morehouse, Morris Brown and Spelman. Training sessions were created for strategies and tactics of Nonviolent Resistance and students who were willing to take an oath of nonviolence were recruited to participate at the lunch counter sit-ins. The first Atlanta sit-in was launched on March 15.

The success of the sit-in movement led to dining establishments across the South to become integrated by the summer of 1960. By the end of July, the Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter became integrated. The first black people to be served at the counter were Woolworth’s employees – Geneva Tisdale, Susie Morrison, Anetha Jones and Charles Best.

Within a year peaceful protests took place in hundreds of cities. At Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, students formed their own organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The first committee meeting was held in Atlanta on May 13. They spent the summer raising funds and arranging the nonviolent training for the students. The first issue of SNCC’s newsletter, the Student Voice, was released. Shortly after SNCC received their first donation check from Eleanor Roosevelt.

The years after SNCC was created they became the cutting-edge of the Freedom Movement. They started as an association of campus-based student protest groups and turned into an organization of organizers in southern Black communities. The SNCC Executive James Foreman recalled SNCC’s early years:

“We were a band of sisters and brothers, a circle of trust. … We were young. We had energy. We had brains. We had technical skills. We had a belief in people and their power to change their lives. We were willing to work with the most dispossessed – the sharecropper, the day laborer, the factory workers, and the mill hands. We were not afraid of death.”

Students in the 1960’s were brave. They pushed for change and did not fear the consequences of what their actions may bring. Please feel free to leave any thoughts or comments on how you feel about their bravery during the time of the sit-ins.

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