On Monday, February 1, 1960, four black students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro sat down at the whites-only counter at a local Woolworth’s and ordered lunch. The clerk refused to serve them, but the four men remained sitting at the counter until the store closed. The men returned the following day with more than a dozen fellow black students and again remained quietly at the counter until the store closed.
By the end of the week, hundreds of black students and even several white students were waiting patiently for service in Woolworth’s, with several hundred more at other restaurants in Greensboro. Although the students temporarily disbanded to negotiate a settlement, the Greensboro sit-in resumed the following spring when local business leaders refused to cave in to the protesters’ demands. Blacks continued to boycott segregationist stores such as Woolworth’s until the desperate merchants finally conceded that summer.
The success of the Greensboro sit-in prompted thousands of blacks to launch similar campaigns in other cities throughout the South. Although police arrested thousands of protesters, most sit-ins succeeded. In 1960, for example, police arrested nearly a hundred peaceful student protesters at Atlanta University. In addition to demanding equality at city lunch counters, the students called for better jobs, better education, and social services for Atlanta’s black community. Despite the arrest, other Atlanta students pledged their commitment to nonviolence, conducted sit-ins at restaurants all over the city, and organized a massive boycott of segregated businesses around Atlanta. Martin Luther King Jr. joined the students and was even among those arrested. Just as in Greensboro, hurting local businessmen eventually gave in and desegregated their stores.
The students who participated in these sit-ins, by provoking segregationists into angry responses, succeeded in winning sympathy from whites—a tactic that Martin Luther King had wanted to employ with the SCLC. Therefore, King dispatched SCLC director Ella Baker to Raleigh, North Carolina, to help organize students and encourage younger blacks to join the nonviolent civil rights struggle.
With Baker’s help, the students formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. The SNCC’s greatest advantage was its youthful membership—students were always willing to pack up and move to fight the next fight. The SNCC members organized hundreds of protests throughout the South in the 1960s and participated in every major campaign.
Not all civil rights activists supported the SNCC, however. Many black leaders believed the student movement was too radical and provocative. They feared that the sit-ins would destroy the small concessions that had taken them years to win from white segregationists. As a result, many all-black schools in the South punished and even expelled student protesters. The sheer success of student-led sit-ins, though, won blacks sympathy from many whites, an accomplishment that leaders such as King knew would be necessary in order to change the status quo.