Socialist Party archives -

This article is part of the series collected by the Socialist Party, the cwi in Ireland, on aspects of Labour History.

See the bottom of page for more articles.

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 nonviolent demonstration."

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 JFKs 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 economic exploitation.

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 whites.

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'.

More Labour History pieces are available here

Another series of articles on Northern Ireland political developments
are available here.

The full range of articles from the Socialist Party
are available in our sitemap