Greensboro Sit-ins


The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Greensboro Sit-ins

On Sunday, January 31, 1960, Joseph McNeill, a freshman at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, tried to get something to eat at the lunch counter of the local bus terminal. “We don’t serve Negroes,” he was told. That evening, McNeill told his roommate, Exell Blair, Jr., about the incident. Blair had been reading a comic book, “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Inspired by the comic book, McNeill, Blair, and two other A&T freshman sat down the next day at the lunch counter of the local Woolworth’s. When they were refused service, they stayed seated from 10 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. and returned again on Tuesday and Wednesday. On Thursday, they were joined by the white students from the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina.

Shortly after the sit-ins began, the students asked the advice of Dr. George Simkins, a local dentist and the president of the NAACP’s Greensboro chapter. Simkins, who had just been reading a CORE pamphlet on direct action, called CORE’s New York office and Len Holt was sent immediately to Greensboro to conduct training sessions in nonviolence. Martin Luther King was the second experienced civil rights activist to go to Greensboro; others who were involved in nonviolent education during the early days of the sit-ins included James Lawson, Glenn Smiley and Charles Walker of the FOR and Herbert Wright, youth secretary of the NAACP.

The student sit-in movement spread with extraordinary speed. Radio and television spread the news of the Greensboro demonstration and within a week black students from North Carolina Central and white students from Duke University started a lunch counter sit-in in Durham, 50 miles east of Greensboro. Soon students were sitting in at lunch counters in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. For the first time, the nonviolent technique introduced by CORE 15 years earlier was being used on a mass basis.

The first arrests came on Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, when 41 students from Shaw University and St. Augustine’s College were arrested in Raleigh, North Carolina. The next day, students from Florida A&M were arrested in Tallahassee. The arrests helped publicize the protest, and by the end of March sit-ins had spread to more than 50 cities. In April 1960, SCLC lent $800 and its executive secretary, Ella Baker, to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to support and encourage sit-ins.

Often the older generation joined the students in jail. In October 1960, King and 36 others were arrested while trying to integrate the Magnolia Room, the main dining room in Rich’s department store in Atlanta. The others were released but King was sentenced to four months in jail, technically because he had an earlier offense — driving without a Georgia driver’s license. Atlantans kept on demonstrating downtown and won over stories one by one. Two years later, virtually all public facilities were integrated. Not only in Atlanta, but through succeeded in challenging segregation.

Robert Cooney and Helen Michalowski, reprinted with permission, from The Power of the People: Active Nonviolence in the United States.  Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1987.
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