On this day in 1960, four young African-American men sat down at the whites-only lunch counter of the Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C., and set in motion one of the most remarkable and effective protest campaigns in our nation’s history. As hundreds of thousands of Americans join protests to press for change in the Trump era, the history of this sit-in movement offers powerful lessons.
The four men, all first-year students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, were refused service at the lunch counter, which like most chain store lunch counters in the South had a whites-only policy. They stayed on their stools until closing. They repeated the routine the next day and the day after that, each time with more and more classmates.
Within days, the protest had expanded to other Greensboro lunch counters and hundreds were taking part. Students in other Southern cities learned what was happening and started their own demonstrations, and in just weeks, lunch counter sit-ins were taking place across the South. By the end of the spring, tens of thousands of black college and high school students, along with some white students, had joined the protests.
The sit-in movement energized and transformed the struggle for racial equality. It moved the struggle’s front lines from courtrooms and legislatures to the streets, and it had a younger generation of activists as its leaders. It set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations across the nation.
Each protest is a unique response to unique circumstances. Protests that look like they can never succeed end up achieving great things, while protests that look like they can’t fail do just that. Nonetheless, the sit-ins worked spectacularly well; it’s worth considering why.
Protests are popularity contests
We are told that certain iconic protest campaigns of the civil rights movement polled poorly (true) or that Martin Luther King faced widespread condemnation at certain points in his career (also true). To be sure, bold protests that attract attention, even if most of it is condemnatory, can play a critical role in creating the conditions for political change. But there is no getting around the fact that at some point, change requires convincing people who are not already on your side.
“It’s easy to get people’s attention,” explained A. Philip Randolph, one of the black freedom struggle’s greatest strategists. “What counts is getting their interest.”
The sit-ins did just this. They presented hundreds of public displays — multiplied through news coverage — of youthful resistance that awakened ignorant or apathetic white Americans to raw and dignity-sapping daily discrimination. The protests generated statements of support from national political, religious and business leaders. White college students outside the South launched sympathy demonstrations, boycotting national chains that allowed racial discrimination in their Southern stores.
There were critics, of course. Die-hard segregationists were unimpressed. People attacked the protests for undermining property rights of business operators. Yet even some segregationists were forced to recognize the power of the sit-ins. Richmond newspaper editor James Kilpatrick confessed that watching a “ragtail rabble” of white boys waving the “proud and honored flag of the Southern states” while heckling “colored students, in coats, white shirts, ties” — one reading Goethe, no less — gave him “pause.”
One reason the lunch counter sit-in movement was so successful was that it created so many ways for the protesters to win. For many, simply taking part in a sit-in could be a triumph. Students often talked about the sense of pride and dignity being part of a sit-in gave them.
Whites who held the levers of power in the segregated South had to respond to the protests. And this gave the protesters a sense of empowerment. When the Greensboro Woolworth manager shut down his lunch counter, students marched back to campus, chanting, “It’s all over!” and “We whipped Woolworth!”
Changing a single person’s mind could be a victory. When participants were asked what they hoped to get out of their protests, a common answer was quite simple: To be served. “We don’t want brotherhood,” one activist declared. “We just want a cup of coffee — sitting down.”
And a growing number of eating facilities desegregated in the face of the protests. Within seven months of the first Greensboro sit-in, 27 Southern cities had integrated their lunch counters. Each one was a victory.
The sit-ins offered the kinds of attainable achievements that energized the movement, that got protesters back out the next day and the day after that. At the same time, the sit-ins had the kind of aspirational goals that give larger meaning to the sacrifice and risk of the protest.
Students often spoke of their desire for “first-class citizenship.” The real objective of the sit-ins, explained racial justice activist Ella Baker, was “to rid America of the scourge of racial segregation and discrimination — not only at lunch counters, but in every aspect of life.”
Once again, we could be on the cusp of a rare moment in which social protest and political activism converge to create lasting political and legal change. The lunch counter sit-in movement of 1960 provides an inspiring example of how this can be done.