Sit-ins weren’t a new civil rights technique. But they in 1960 they helped energize the civil rights movement. Although a passive technique in nature, sit-ins caused real change to occur. The impact sit-ins had on the civil rights movement proved to be invaluable to changing policies and norms in the 1960s.
In the early 1940s, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) successfully used sit-ins to desegregate public facilities, in Chicago primarily. Howard University students also had success in 1944 when they used the sit-in tactic to desegregate a cafeteria in Washington, D.C. These incidents were more isolated, however.
The four students in North Carolina sparked a wave of additional sit-ins throughout the South and set the stage for the creation of a new organization that quickly gained momentum within the civil rights movement: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
In February 1960, four black college students — Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McClain, and David Richmond — sat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter reserved for “whites only” in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. This simple act added fuel to the burgeoning civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The day after the first sit-in at the Greensboro Woolworth’s, more students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, the historically black college that the original four attended, descended on the store. Even though there were no confrontations, the local media covered the second sit-in. When the national media picked up the story, it struck a chord with other students who began to duplicate the sit-ins in other locations.
F.W. Woolworth’s was a discount store that represented Americana. One of the nation’s few chains, it helped create a national identity. The lunch counters at the front of the stores were popular meeting spots. Civil rights leadership recognized the symbolic power of Woolworth’s and acted quickly to organize more sit-ins. Within two weeks, students in 11 cities had staged sit-ins at Woolworth’s and S.H. Kress stores. To show their support, Northern students, both black and white, picketed local branches of chain stores that practiced racial segregation in the South.
Sit-ins in Nashville
Nashville, Tennessee was a pivotal city in the sit-in movement. With the national spotlight created by the Greensboro sit-in, students from four predominantly black schools took action in Nashville in February 1960.
The first wave of sit-ins was peaceful, but that changed on February 27, 1960, when a group of white teenagers attacked sit-in participants. Nashville police didn’t stop the attack. Instead, they arrested the sit-in participants for disorderly conduct. A new group quickly replaced the arrested students. Nashville police arrested approximately 81 students during this period.
When the black community rallied behind the students with money to bail them out, the students refused the bail money and opted to serve jail terms. Fisk student Diane Nash, a former beauty pageant contestant who became one of the civil rights movement’s young leaders, explained, “We feel that if we pay these fines we would be contributing to and supporting the injustice and immoral practices that have been performed in the arrest and conviction of the defendants.”
By April, Nashville, long considered a moderate city in regards to race relations, had lost considerable tourist dollars. When segregationists bombed the home of Z. Alexander Looby, the attorney who represented the participating students, 2,500 people, whites among them, marched to city hall and addressed Nashville Mayor Ben West. A turning point in the Nashville movement came when Nash asked West if he believed it was wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of race and West answered “yes.” Weeks later, lunch counters in Nashville were desegregated.
Sit-ins's influence on the Civil Rights Movement
The sit-in tactic helped integrate other facilities. By August 1961, an estimated 70,000 people had participated in sit-ins across the country (more than 3,000 of these were arrested). One of the most important results of these actions was that students from across the country became active participants in the civil right movement.
The sit-ins demonstrated that mass nonviolent direct action could be successful and brought national media attention to the new era of the civil rights movement. Additionally, the jail-in tactic of not paying bail to protest legal injustice became another important strategy. For the first time, the battle to end racial injustice combined legal action with direct public protest.