The African American Civil Rights Movement As a Long Lasting Process of Struggle for Freedom

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3.3 The Sit-in Movement

3.3.1 The Sit-in Movement in Greensboro

The changing situation in Africa became a new inspiration for African Americans. Ghana’s victory for independence in 1957 influenced other states there and by 1960, twelve African nations had attained independence. Where was the justice in African Americans, living in a free country who could not obtain full freedoms, in contrast to their black brothers in Africa? Black author James Baldwin ridiculed the situation: “All of Africa will be free before we can get a lousy cup of coffee” (qtd. in Sitkoff 1993: 74-75).

The impatience of the young was growing. In 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled that segregated education was unconstitutional, many were in their teenage years and hoped to finish their studies at integrated schools. Six years later, only six percent of schools had begun desegregation, and states such as Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina had done nothing. Besides, in 1960 fewer than one in four potential voters could register in the South. In light of this, impatience of young people was justified. They were different from their parents and grandparents. Most of them had grown up in an environment that promised change. They were also better educated, and were adding to the numbers of the black middle class (ibid.: 75-79).

Similar to the Montgomery bus boycott, the sit-in movement began as the individual action of one man. In this case, four students from the black Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina decided to retaliate against the everyday refusals by whites to serve them in restaurants and lunch-counters reserved for whites. They were tired of living in a separate American society (ibid.: 61)

On the 1st of February, 1960 Joseph McNeill, Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain and David Richmond entered a downtown Greensboro store, bought some school supplies, then sat at a lunch counter and ordered coffee. They knew the waitress would not serve them because they were black, so they proceeded with their plan. They sat and waited to be served the whole afternoon, until the store closed. When they returned to their campus, several excited students were waiting there to join them the next day (ibid.: 62-63).

In accordance with King’s belief of nonviolence and Christian love, they agreed on these rules: “The protesters would remain passive, never raise their voices, never indulge in-name calling” (ibid.: 63). On the second day of their protest twenty-seven students joined them, and on the third day there were sixty-three seats occupied by black students. On the fourth day, three white students joined them and they now occupied all sixty-six lunch counter seats. That same day, a nearby department store was also targeted, and by the fifth day over three hundred young people were demonstrating – doing nothing, only sitting and waiting for their coffee (ibid.).

The case attracted national attention and on the sixth day city officials decided to negotiate. More than 1,600 students who were involved in the sit-in agreed to end the demonstration, although none of them had been served (ibid.: 63-64).

By the end of March it was clear that white officials would not abandon the segregated lunch counter policy, and sit-ins began again. In April the first arrests appeared. Forty-five students were jailed for trespassing and disobeying police officers who asked them to leave. The black community supported the students by not doing their shopping in stores where they were refused to be served which resulted in profits dropping by more than one third. The white council decided to give in. Six months later, blacks in Greensboro could order their cups of coffee at whatever lunch counter they wished (ibid.: 61-64).

3.3.2 Spreading of the Sit-ins and Formation of the SNCC

Within fourteen days after the beginning of the movement in Greensboro, Northerners expressed their support for the movement by staging various sit-ins and other forms of demonstrations in New York, Chicago and Boston. Students had begun a new phase of the black struggle and awakened dignity and self-awareness in thousands of black citizens. Money was raised in the North to pay bails for jailed students in the South. Store chains were boycotted in order to cause lunch counter segregation to become a national issue (Sitkoff 1993: 81).

It would be mistaken, however, to think that the sit-in movements were only about free choice concerning where to eat. Sit-ins demonstrated how injustices affected the everyday lives of thousands of African Americans. Soon the protesters turned their attention to other segregated public facilities and new tactics appeared, such as kneel-ins in churches, sleep-ins in hotel lobbies, swim-ins in pools, wade-ins on beaches, read-ins in public libraries, and play-ins in parks (ibid.: 73).

Students were determined to reach victory and rather than pay fines they decided to be jailed. Now they understood King’s words: “We’ve got to fill the jails in order to win our civil rights” (qtd. in ibid.: 66). Being in jail, it sometimes proved to be better than being out. Although students wore their best clothes and their behavior did not provoke whites, their presence in white only territories was enough provocation for whites to attack, beat or kick them. Some of them became victims of lynching or practices of the KKK. On the other hand, every arrest initiated a new sit-in somewhere else. The more whites tried to suppress the sit-ins, the more black students became resolute and the more sit-ins spread to other cities (ibid.).

Imprisoned students, who had only peacefully sat at lunch counters but were arrested, were in contrast to whites who poured ketchup on them, threw food on them or pushed lighted cigarettes against their backs attracted the attention of the mass media. Police arrested only demonstrators, whereas whites remained free. These actions irritated more and more whites in the North who began to encourage equal civil rights for all American citizens. Whites in the South realized at least, that the Jim Crow policy was starting to be untenable (ibid.).

By the end of 1961, two hundred cities started to desegregate their public facilities. Although resistance in the Deep South, where victories remained exceptions to the rule, was strong, sit-ins managed to bring change into upper Southern and border states. The movement actually began to dismantle Jim Crow closer to the South (ibid.: 73).

As the actions of students became more and more successful, they felt the need to form an organization. They did not desire to be affiliated to the NAACP or the SCLC. At a convention in April, 1960 King and other leaders supported them in their intentions, because the students’ tactics differed from those of the NAACP as well as the SCLC. The tempo of their actions seemed quick for most conservative adults. Young people were enthusiastic, determined and strongly believed that they could change racial prejudices in the United States. They refused slow trials at courts and saw nonviolent actions of civil disobedience as the proper way to achieve racial equality in all aspects of their lives. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, abbrev. SNCC (pronounced snick) was established in October 1960 (ibid.: 83-87).

3.3.3 Summary

There was no doubt that at the beginning of the 1960s the civil rights struggle needed new inspiration and energy. Who would be a better choice than the young people growing up in an atmosphere of continuous change? Their youth, boldness, excitement and courage to overcome fear of white resistance and violence were to their advantage. Many black adults who had spent all their lives in inferior positions of racial hatred preserved supporting the legal actions of the NAACP and were reluctant to join the direct actions in the streets.

The sit-ins added new self-confidence and power to the movement. Thousands of blacks and whites joined the struggle for equal civil rights for all. Those who did not support these movements could not avoid them because of the mass media coverage. Television and radio stations broadcasted recordings of continuing demonstrations and various newspapers printed articles and photos high lighting the actions. The struggle for equal civil rights touched the lives of all Americans. At this phase of the movement, it was no longer possible to ignore it. Whether people were for or against it, the issue of first-class citizenship for African American was becoming the key question of those days.

Since students did not believe that failure was an option, they decided to support even the dangerous actions as the Freedom Rides. Their idealism took a strong hit and they had to keep in mind the SNCC Statement Purpose that stated: “Love is the central motif of nonviolence. Love is the force by which God binds man to himself and man to man. Such love goes to extreme; it remains loving and forgiving even in the midst of hostility” (qtd. in Facing History 2006: 46).

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