Sit-Ins Background Sit-in at F. W. Woolworth’s

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Sit-Ins Background

Sit-in at F.W. Woolworth’s The examples of success in Montgomery (bus boycott) and Little Rock laid the groundwork for the next stage of the movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1957, Congress passed the first Civil Rights Act in over 90 years. This act set up a commission to investigate violations of civil rights and gave the Attorney General authority to sue anyone hindering an American’s voting rights. With hope, strength, a new confidence, and an admired leader Martin Luther King Jr., Negroes saw another opportunity for victory and a new strategy in the wake of a courageous act in Greensboro, North Carolina.

In Greensboro, on February 1, 1960, four black students- David Richmond, Ezell Blair, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain--freshman from nearby North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, decided to challenge the injustice of the segregated lunch-counters, a common practice throughout the South. At 4:30 pm the four walked into F.W. Woolworth’s Five and Dime Store, purchased a few items, then went downstairs and boldly sat down at the lunch counter, and ordered. A Negro waitress first told them, “Fellows like you make our race look bad.” Then she refused to serve them the coffee they ordered. The four remained at their stools, undisturbed and unserved, until closing time at 5:30.

The Greensboro Four That night the buzz across the college made the “Greensboro Four” instant celebrities. The next day, having discussed strategies in late-night discussion sessions, 19 students appeared at Woolworth’s lunch counter, ordered, were refused service, and remained for the rest of the day. On Wednesday, 85 students participated. Confused but generally polite managers at Woolworth’s finally called in police when business from white customers fell off considerably that first week. The sit-in, in which civil rights supporters remained seated at segregated lunch counters until they were served or arrested, became the new strategy of a growing passive resistance movement based on not fighting back and loving your enemy. This “Montgomery Way” was recommended and practiced by Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers, who pointed out how it had been practiced earlier by Jesus, Henry David Thoreau, and Mahatma Gandhi.

The students who participated in the Woolworth’s sit-in February 1-4, 1960, had no plan, no training, no preparation. They weren’t even sure what kind of reactions store managers would have. In this particular case, the sit-in was spontaneous and open-minded. Yet, it excited Negro leaders, and focused on a new battleground - lunch counters and other public facilities.

With the example of the Greensboro sit-in at Woolworth’s, plans were now put forth to stage similar demonstrations all over the South. Besides Woolworth’s, other national chains of so-called “dime stores” such as Kress, some with several stores in each city, became targets for sit-ins. Here was the sit-in scenario: walk in, sit down at the lunch counter, politely request food or drink (usually coffee), remain at the counter on the bar stool or swivel chair when refused service, and above all, “Keep silent.”

If the Greensboro sit-in was somewhat spontaneous, the one planned for Nashville in late February was not. Students who had decided to stage the Nashville protest against lunch counter segregation had attended Jim Lawson’s workshop on non-violence. Lawson was an African American teacher with experience while in India in Gandhian passive resistance. There he had refused to fight in the Korean War. Back in the states he had trained and educated Nashville’s black students to never fight back, to love their oppressor, and to absorb, if necessary, the body blows from hostile forces. His message: “Respond in dignity.”

On February 18, students from Nashville’s four black colleges staged their first sit-in downtown.

You are your classmates will be role-playing those who participated in the Nashville sit-in in February 1960, either as a waitress, a store manager, racist teenagers, police, or as the brave protesters determined to desegregate downtown Nashville’s lunch counters.

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