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USA - 1960-61: Student sit-ins challenge Jim Crow
Black History - Sitting In and Standing Up for Civil Rights
1960-61: Student sit-ins challenge Jim Crow
By Eve Goodman Justice
, paper of Socialist Alternative, US-CWI, Jan-Feb 2002, No 28
We are taught in elementary school that the civil rights
movement began in 1965 with Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream"
speech. In actuality, black people have been fighting against oppression in one
way or another, since they first arrived as slaves in the American colonies.
But it was not until the mid-1950s that the modern civil
rights movement really began. A spark which helped set off the movement was the
1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education, which called for
the desegregation of schools across the US. Following on its heels was the
inspirational 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. That event wasn't just Rosa Parks
refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger; the Montgomery bus boycott
was a well organized, year long, mass campaign that united black people across
Montgomery to boycott the bus system by organizing carpools, walking to work,
whatever it took – until it was desegregated.
In the wake of this successful boycott, and in a climate
of seething dissatisfaction and growing resistance from black people across the
South, ministers from eleven southern states met at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s
Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta. They decided that they needed to establish
a formal organization to continue the struggle for civil rights, which led to
the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King led
this group from its inception in 1957 until his death in 1968.
Even though its leaders were preachers who came from a
culturally and politically conservative tradition, in sharp contrast to the
other African-American organizations such as the NAACP, the SCLC supported
direct acts of civil disobedience.
On February 1st, 1960, four black freshmen from the
Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina marched into a
Woolworth's white-only lunch counter, sat down, and refused to leave until they
were served, taking out textbooks and studying to pass the time. Their protest
made the local news. That night, the four instantly famous students met with
elected student leaders; the next morning, nineteen students joined them at
Woolworth's. The following day, the number swelled to eighty-five – unperturbed
by the crowd of white people who gathered around to jeer and to pour ketchup
and milk on their heads. (Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters, 271)
In a matter of weeks, hundreds of young blacks across the
southern US began to "invade" segregated lunch counters, steadfastly
remaining seated until served or physically removed by the police. In Atlanta,
continuous sit-ins and boycotts through February, 1961, forced the white owners
of thirteen corporations to close more than seventy of their downtown stores
for three months! (Branch, 396)
These sit-ins were important because they signaled a new
phase of the civil rights movement, with the struggle taking on a more youthful
and fighting character. Inspired by the colonial liberation movements sweeping
Africa and Asia, the new generation of young southern blacks would not be
cowed. They were ready to fight for their own liberation at home.
But the actions of these youth were not organized by the
SCLC or any of the existing civil rights organizations as the sit-ins had begun
spontaneously. Before long, however, the students felt the need to form their
own organization in order to facilitate the demonstrations that were rapidly
gathering steam across the South. They recognized that without such organizing,
the sit-in movement could die away as quickly as it had arisen.
Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee
In April 1960, the first regional conference of students
involved in the sit-in movement took place at Highlander Folk School, with
nearly a hundred students from nineteen states participating. There was so much
energy that when SCLC called a second conference only two weeks later in
Raleigh, North Carolina, even more students attended! (Branch, 290-1)
But when King invited the students to organize themselves
into a youth wing of the SCLC, they declined and instead created their own
organization, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Co-founder
Chuck McDew explained the main reason why the students chose to be independent
from the SCLC: "Some people were totally committed to non-violence; some
people saw it strictly as a tactic to be used. And since we couldn't come to an
agreement on that, we decided not to join the SCLC. And, instead, we decided to
create an organization of our own."
Organized through SNCC, black students across the south
staged demonstrations. One of the most important took place in Rock Hill, South
Carolina, where ten students who sat in at a lunch counter were arrested. They
were found guilty and sentenced to $100 or thirty days of hard labor on the
chain gang. Nine of the ten chose jail time. Word of the students' action
spread quickly through SNCC, and four other organizers drove to Rock Hill, sat
in at the same lunch counter, were likewise arrested and sentenced, and joined
the original nine in the local lock-up.
Despite the fierce repression, the movement remained
absolutely firm and the campaign of mass sit-ins continued. Eventually, lunch
counters were desegregated in over 150 cities and President Kennedy was forced
to order the Interstate Commission to end bus segregation. These victories were
critical in turning the tide against Jim Crow, but blacks were still denied
equal rights. Unemployment, poverty, racism, and police brutality still reigned
supreme across the country.
Increased Debates Within Movement
The next phase of the struggle was the freedom rides which
directly confronted Jim Crow laws in the most segregated cites in the deep
South. The heroism and willingness to sacrifice of these young activists
changed history. We will cover this in future articles.
A key lesson learned in this early phase of the movement
was the need for organization. The creation of SNCC was instrumental in the
development of the movement. Civil rights activists could compare experiences,
debate strategies and develop new campaigns and tactics. In this way the
movement could confront ever-changing tasks and difficulties, draw common
inspiration from each other's struggles, and adopt new methods of struggle to
move forward to new victories.
The approach of SNCC was to take on segregation wherever
it existed. The experiences of this increasingly militant and radical youth
contradicted the teachings of King and SCLC. McDew's own experience confirms
this: "There were few demonstrations that did not become violent. If you
went to a library and you were black, it was fair and realistic to assume
somebody was going to hit you as a result of that. And it generally happened.
If you went to a bus station or a zoo, your very presence, by being black, was
going to create a violent reaction. I was beaten many times. Jaw broken. Teeth
pulled out in jail. That was par for the course. There was no such thing as a
As young activists were beaten and even killed by police
at demonstrations, persecuted and lynched in the course of their organizing
efforts, King's preaching to "Love even your enemy" seemed
increasingly out of touch. Not only did these young people not necessarily
share the religious convictions that were the basis of King's pacifism, but
they were also growing impatient with King's limited strategy for the civil
rights movement. King placed considerable faith in the Kennedys, both John F.
and Bobby, and in the Democratic Party, whose support he saw as essential in
order to win gains.
The reality was that the Southern states were all
one-party dictatorships, each one run by the Democratic Party. It was they who
led the charge in setting cops with dogs and water hoses on protesters to crush
the civil rights movement. The Democrats, as party of US capitalism, were
terrified of the growing Black revolt and sought to find every possible way to
kill off the movement.
The attempts of the Kennedy's to persuade the SCLC to call
off protests and demonstrations often brought King into conflict with the
youth. On one occasion, Bobby Kennedy claimed that the civil rights agitation
was embarrassing JFK¹s administration and called for a "cooling off
period." James Farmer, a leader of the radical group CORE said:
"We've been cooling off for a hundred years. If we got any cooler, we'd be
in the deep freeze!"
King's reformist strategy, that change could only be
achieved by gaining the ear of those already in power, was coming into serious
conflict with the increasingly radical youth and black masses. They refused to
limit the struggle to what the Democrats and big business found acceptable.
Instead their strategy was based, as expressed by Malcolm X, on the idea of
"freedom by any means necessary."
As the struggle developed, differences in strategy between
the different wings of the movement became more pronounced as wider layers of
activists drew radical conclusions about the need for militant mass action,
breaking from the Democrats, and the need for socialism.
As we fight against globalization, war, racism, and
environmental destruction, it is essential that we learn these same lessons and
build our own youth organizations on local, regional and national levels. This
will allow us to develop common goals, clarify the most successful strategies,
and develop a program to link all these movements and reach out to all other
sections of society hurt by Bush's attacks, the long legacy of racism, and
What was Jim Crow?
While slavery was abolished during the civil war, America
remained a place dominated by racist hatred and oppression. Blacks were
systematically prevented from voting in elections. In most southern states,
transport facilities, restaurants, bars, toilets, parks and public facilities
were strictly segregated and the only decent facilities were reserved for
Since 1908, Atlanta, Georgia's elevators were racially
segregated and it was illegal for white and black baseball teams to play within
two blocks of each other. Taxicabs were segregated in Mississippi,
Jacksonville, Florida and Birmingham, Alabama. In 1930, a law passed in
Birmingham made it "an offence for Blacks and whites to be in the company
of each other at checkers or dominoes."
Today these laws may appear farcical, but for African-Americans they were no joke. Jim Crow (the popular term for racial
segregation) was not just a legal phenomenon; it was a dynamic and violent
caste system vigorously enforced by the state. Its ideology of white racial
superiority gave birth to crazed lynch mobs – a means of forcibly 'keeping
Blacks in their place'.
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