Sit-ins reignited the civil rights movement 50 years ago
By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
NASHVILLE — Fifth Avenue downtown bustles with activity on a blustery recent afternoon. People of all races mingle: This could be any midsize city in the United States, circa 2010.
Fifty years ago, things were different. The stores along Fifth — specifically, their lunch counters — and the city itself were the site of a battle that also played out in dozens of other cities in the South.
The fight pitted black college students and a few of their white peers against the city's white power structure and its downtown merchants over the right to sit down and eat lunch. At the time, blacks could spend money in those stores but couldn't eat at the stores' lunch counters.
The lunch counter of 1960 was the equivalent of fast-food restaurants today. Hamburger chains were just beginning to appear on the American landscape. Ray Kroc had opened his first McDonald's about five years earlier; Burger King had gone national just the year before.
People wanting a sandwich or a hamburger popped over to the lunch counter of department stores, drugstores and five-and-dime stores to have a bite.
Except black people.
State and local ordinances known as Jim Crow laws in at least 11 Southern states prohibited interracial interaction in most areas of public life — restaurants, schools, courtrooms, buses and trains, movie theaters, even reform schools.
Starting 50 years ago Monday, students across the South decided to change that.
The tactic they chose was simple: They sat at lunch counters and waited to be served. The stores refused to serve them, and the students were arrested and hauled off to jail, sometimes after being beaten and spat on by white mobs.
The tactic became known as sit-ins, and in 1960, tens of thousands of students across the South were doing it — protesting racial discrimination that had scarred their parents, risking their futures to try to ensure a better one for their children.
Perhaps 100,000 students participated in sit-ins, says historian Clayborne Carson; 3,000 were arrested in 1960 alone.
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Their story is drawing renewed attention as Black History Month begins and a new museum celebrating the transformation of America from the sit-ins to the election of President Obama opens Monday.
"Had not all of that transpired, we would not have had the victory of 2008," says Amelia Parker, 61, executive director of the new International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, N.C., where the sit-ins began.
The sit-ins — and the students they attracted — reinvigorated Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights movement, which had begun to flag after the success of the Rosa Parks-inspired Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56.
"The sit-ins were the real starting point of the protests of the 1960s," Carson says.
"After Montgomery, King hadn't been able to sustain momentum. The sit-ins took the initiative away from King and the NAACP. You had these students, in some ways, leading King," says Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University and head of the Morehouse College King Collection.
The protests would groom a new generation of black leaders, and they would provide inspiration for movements that followed, says Reavis Mitchell, history department chairman at Fisk University here.
"The sit-ins had, and they continue to have, a tremendous impact," he says.
Nashville: The prelude
Among Southern cities, Nashville in 1960 was relatively moderate in matters of race.
It called itself "The Athens of the South" because of its many colleges and universities. The City Council was integrated, and the white mayor, Ben West, was considered progressive by many black residents.
But Nashville was a segregated city.
"It was as segregated by race as any city in South Africa during apartheid," says John Seigenthaler, 82, then the weekend city editor of The Tennessean, Nashville's leading newspaper.
He later was editor and publisher of The Tennessean, and was the first editorial director of USA TODAY.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., was among a group of young people who aimed to change the status quo. In early 1960, he was a 19-year-old college student.
"You had all these young people from all over the country, from all over the world," Lewis says. "They would come to Fisk to watch films and plays, or come to the Fisk Chapel to listen to unbelievable music. But they could not eat together downtown in racially mixed groups."
For almost two years leading up to 1960, Lewis was in a group of students learning non-violent tactics from James Lawson, a graduate student at Vanderbilt University.
The group included Diane Nash, an English major from Chicago who would emerge as a key spokeswoman; Bernard LaFayette, later a college president; C.T. Vivian, who later became an Atlanta city councilman, and Marion Barry, later mayor of Washington, D.C.
They held mock sit-ins, learning not to respond if attacked.
In late 1959, they held test sit-ins without incident at two Nashville department stores, Harvey's and Cain-Sloan, where they were denied service.
Soon, they would be ready for the real protest.
Action in Greensboro
Before the Nashville students could act, they were upstaged.
On Feb. 1, 1960 four young black students, all freshmen at North Carolina A&T College, sat down at the whites-only lunch counter of the Woolworth department store in downtown Greensboro.
Unlike the Nashville students, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond and Franklin McCain had not spent long months preparing. They simply had had enough, and decided to act.
"My parents grew up and carried the scars of racial segregation," says McNeil, 67 and a retired Air Force Reserve major general who lives in Hempstead, N.Y.
"I didn't want to see my children have to face the same problem. We just felt that this certainly was a time to act. If not now, when? If not my generation, what generation?"
Taylor Branch, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights history, Parting the Waters, says that word of the Greensboro sit-in "spread like wildfire from campus to campus and from state to state."
Within days, sit-ins were happening all over the South.
Black Southerners, expecting profound change after the Supreme Court ordered school desegregation in 1954, had grown frustrated with the slow pace of progress, Branch says.
Sit-ins had been tried in more than a dozen cities starting in 1958 in Wichita, but none ignited passions like the one in Greensboro.
By the end of February, sit-ins had taken place in 31 cities and in 71 by March, according to Branch.
By October, sit-ins had occurred in 112 Southern cities, according to Juan Williams' Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965.
Many of the sit-ins, however, were largely ineffectual. Not so in Nashville.
On Feb. 13, 1960, 124 of the Nashville students — dressed in their Sunday best — quietly marched two abreast from a nearby church to Fifth Avenue.
They went to Woolworth, S.H. Kress and McClellan. They made small purchases, then sat down at the lunch counters and asked to be served, Lewis wrote in his memoirs, Walking With the Wind.
"We don't serve (expletive) here," a waitress told him at Woolworth, he says.
They waited, as other shoppers stared. The students sat for a few hours, then left. They returned again and again over the next two weeks, adding a fourth store, Grants, then a fifth, Walgreens.
Their numbers grew with each subsequent sit-in.
Angry white youths heckled, beat and spat on them. By Feb. 27, the city had decided to crack down. Nashville police arrested 81 students.
"For the white community, there was shock, anger, overwhelmingly negative feelings," Seigenthaler says. "The business community adopted a very steel-backed approach, rigid and very negative."
Many black parents feared for their children's future — and their lives.
"There was an ongoing debate between the students and their parents," LaFayette says. "They feared for our safety, because we were going up against a system that was not known to be very sympathetic or humane, particularly law enforcement in the South."
The sit-ins, however, rolled on into April. They were costing the downtown merchants money, a situation that Nashville's relatively large black middle class intensified with a boycott as Easter approached.
"It was a 'No New Clothes Easter,' " Mitchell says. "People were very serious about this. They didn't shop. Anyone who had new clothes that Easter stood out."
The boycott's success prompted Mayor Ben West to offer a compromise the students found insulting: a three-month trial period during which blacks would be served in a separate area of the restaurants.
It was rejected, and the sit-ins continued.
The turning point came on April 19, when the home of the students' attorney, Z. Alexander Looby, was bombed. Later that day, thousands of people, black and white, marched in silence to City Hall, where Diane Nash confronted West.
She asked, "Mayor, do you recommend that the lunch counters be desegregated?"
West hesitated briefly. "Yes," he answered, says Seigenthaler, who was there.
On May 10, after weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations, six Fifth Avenue stores — Kress, Woolworth, McClellan, Grant's, Walgreens and Cain-Sloan — served black customers at their lunch counters for the first time.
Days after the West-Nash confrontation, King came to Nashville and told a capacity crowd at the Fisk gym that the Nashville sit-ins were "the best organized and the most disciplined in the Southland," according to Parting the Waters.
Soon after the West-Nash confrontation, Nashville would exit the stage as the civil rights movement moved on to Birmingham, Selma and Memphis, cities that would become better known because their resistance to racial progress was stauncher and meaner.
"It's really tough to understand how a city could be so insensitive, and in some ways, so dumb," Seigenthaler says. "But Nashville's ability to resolve it within a relatively short period of time and put it behind it was worth considering."
The intervening half-century has eroded the evidence of what occurred on Fifth Avenue.
There is nothing here to remind visitors of the sit-ins. The sign is still up at the old Kress store, but it's been converted into loft apartments.
Walgreens, the only one of the stores that endures, hasn't had a lunch counter in decades.
The young, multiracial staff has no recollection of the sit-ins. They weren't even born then, and 1960 is not a topic of conversation among customers.
Nashville residents, like those elsewhere, can sit together and eat lunch wherever their wallets take them.
"Nashville today is a city that's very respected in race relations," Mitchell says.
"It's a diverse, international community. The present generation is often shocked when we refer to the sit-ins. They see a very open and urban community, and they don't believe that that happened here."