Why the Woolworth’s Sit-In Worked

6 minute read

It was Feb. 1, 1960, when four black students sat down at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., and ordered coffee. As TIME reported, “the white patrons eyed them warily, and the white waitresses ignored their studiously polite requests for service.”

Six years had passed since the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown vs. The Board of Education declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional — separate facilities were inherently unequal, argued Chief Justice Earl Warren — but Southern states (and even some cities in the North) clung desperately to their traditions of racial exclusion. Challenging Jim Crow through the legal system was a gradual, piecemeal process, and large numbers of Americans were growing impatient.

The four young men, freshmen at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, remained seated until closing time, and returned with 300 more students a few days later, determined to integrate the whites-only five-and-dime.

This form of grassroots activism, known as a “sit-in,” spread to cities in nearly every Southern state over the next several weeks. TIME credited the “unique protest against Jim Crow” with initiating a wave of demonstrations that “raced from North Carolina to South Carolina to Virginia to Florida to Tennessee and into Deep South Alabama.” Although the sit-ins “washed up some familiar flotsam: the duck-tailed swaggerers, rednecked hatemongers, [and] the Ku Klux Klan,” they also attracted sympathy from white college students, as well as those in Northern cities; picketers marched outside of Woolworth’s and similar variety stores in New York, Madison, and Boston.

Woolworth’s desegregated in July of 1960, with other stores and restaurants following suit.

The lunch-counter sit-ins spawned wade-ins at pools and beaches, kneel-ins at churches, read-ins at libraries, and walk-ins at theaters and amusement parks. Those who participated in these direct actions had to maintain stoic composure in the midst of white harassment, both verbal and physical. Many were careful to adhere to white standards of “respectable” grooming, dress, and manners, even as they disrupted deep-rooted racial etiquette. In some cities, stubborn officials simply shut down public parks and pools rather than integrating them, but the strategy worked in many others.

Sit-ins were not new — the NAACP as well as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized them in both the North and the South following World War II — but in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a national movement emerged. The sit-ins mattered not only because they worked, but also because they mobilized tens of thousands of people to participate in an assortment of confrontational acts that made up the civil rights movement.

The same went for boycotts, which had been used as a strategy for addressing racial inequality since the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” actions of the Depression-Era North, in which blacks refused to shop at stores that would not hire them as employees. Their efforts were often stymied by court injunctions against picket lines, and their success was heavily dependent on local press coverage, but the boycotts ultimately yielded hundreds of jobs for blacks in cities like Chicago and Cleveland. Activists revived this strategy during 1950s and 1960s, stressing the importance of economic opportunities in black communities. The most well-known boycott in American history took place in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. After several black women, including Rosa Parks, were arrested for refusing to give up their bus seats to white passengers, African Americans organized a boycott of the city’s bus system. It lasted 381 days, with an estimated 40,000 participants. TIME described the boycott as a “powerful economic weapon,” and indeed, African Americans accounted for 75% of Montgomery’s bus ridership. In 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated seating on public transit violated the 14th Amendment.

Likewise, the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, had roots in 1940s civil rights activism. In 1941, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin mobilized 100,000 people to march on the nation’s capital in order to protest racial discrimination in the U.S. military. No march actually took place that year; the planning alone effectively pressured President Roosevelt to issue an executive order desegregating the war industries. But the idea for a Washington march never fully disappeared, and the climate of protest in the 1960s gave it new life. In 1963, Randolph and Rustin, with help from an assortment of civil rights leaders and groups, organized what was then the largest political rally in American history.

What all of these social-movement strategies had in common was that they disrupted business-as-usual and used public space to make a spectacle that commanded attention. Even when they failed to provoke the type of literal confrontation that occurred in 1965 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they had symbolic power. Although the news coverage that these events received was not universally supportive, an enormous amount of media focus both on television and in the papers ultimately bolstered the cause of civil rights. By 1960, almost every American had a television set, and could watch the movement unfold on the evening news. Images of nonviolent protesters enduring brutal beatings swayed public opinion in favor of the movement.

Subsequent American social movements recognized the power of the sit-in, and modified it to address their own struggles. In the 1970s, for instance, gay liberation activists organized “kiss-ins” at anti-gay businesses as a way of promoting visibility and awareness, and during the 1980s, AIDS advocacy group ACT-UP staged “die-ins” in Manhattan, to represent the magnitude of a health crisis that had been neglected by the government. Recently, die-ins have been used to protest police brutality.

The protest tactics of the civil rights movement, from the Woolworth’s sit-ins to the Selma marches, demonstrate the power of ordinary people taking collective action. These strategies ultimately paved the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Just as importantly, they allowed black Americans to express a sense of dignity and self-worth that had been consistently, violently denied to them. In this way, they were precursors to today’s social justice activism, particularly the #blacklivesmatter call to action against police brutality. We can see such current protests as the continuation of a long and unfinished grassroots movement. Now as in the 1960s, victories depend on strength in numbers as well as the instrumental role of the media in shaping a narrative of the struggle.

Sascha Cohen is a PhD candidate in the history department at Brandeis University. Her dissertation explores American humor in the 1970s and 1980s. Her own satirical writing can be found in McSweeneys.

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