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.
Not surprisingly, civil rights became a major issue in the 1960 presidential campaign. Although Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon would not admit his support publicly for fear of alienating southern conservatives, Democrat John F. Kennedy embraced the student-led sit-ins, mentioning them in his campaign speeches. Kennedy’s support of the movement won him the vast majority of black votes in the North, contributing significantly to his victory over Nixon that year.
Kennedy’s victory was bittersweet: even though he won the presidency, Republicans and southern conservative Democrats triumphed in Congress, severely limiting Kennedy’s ability to pass civil rights legislation. Nonetheless, Kennedy was able to create the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity to help end racial discrimination in the federal government and strengthened the civil rights division at the Justice Department. He also ordered his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to support civil rights activism as much as he could.
Kennedy’s opportunity to demonstrate presidential support for the civil rights movement came the following year. In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality organized a biracial Freedom Ride on interstate buses traveling through the South. CORE hoped that the Freedom Ride would provoke a reaction from segregationists just as the student-led sit-ins had, with public harassment, arrests, and widespread media attention. However, CORE also hoped that the publicity and arrests would force the Kennedys to intervene.
Black and white Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C., in May 1961 and faced only mild opposition until they met a mob of white supremacists ten days later in Alabama. The mob torched the bus and assaulted the Freedom Riders on board, nearly killing two of them. Another segregationist mob attacked them again in Birmingham as police looked on. Wounded and unsuccessful, the riders returned to the North and let the SNCC Freedom Riders take over. These new riders encountered severe opposition in Montgomery, Alabama, where yet another mob attacked the students. Police eventually arrested the SNCC Freedom Riders on charges of disturbing the peace.
Just as the protesters had hoped, the mob violence and police inaction in Birmingham and Montgomery outraged President Kennedy and were a major embarrassment for the U.S. government. In response, Kennedy sent 400 federal agents to prevent further violence in Montgomery and pushed the Interstate Commerce Commission to clarify its regulations regarding segregation on interstate buses. The success of the CORE and SNCC Freedom Rides prompted chapter organizations to sponsor their own rides in the Deep South throughout the 1960s.
A year after the Freedom Rides, yet another segregation crisis occurred at the University of Mississippi, prompting the president once again to act on behalf of civil rights activists. A federal court ordered the university to admit James Meredith, the university’s first black transfer student. As Arkansas governor Orval Faubus had refused to allow black students to attend an all-white high school in 1957, Mississippi governor Ross Barnett and state officials refused to let Meredith enter the university.
Kennedy dispatched hundreds of U.S. marshals to protect Meredith and forcibly integrate the university. Barnett continued to resist even after the marshals arrived, organizing several thousand whites to attack them. The riot left two people dead and hundreds wounded. Kennedy then ordered 5,000 U.S. Army soldiers to secure the university and escort Meredith to class. The president also used federal troops to integrate the University of Alabama the following year.
Hoping to continue the attention-getting campaign, SNCC and NAACP activists in the small town of Albany, Georgia, launched a massive boycott of and sit-in at local restaurants and department stores from 1961 to 1962. Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC eventually joined the movement to make Albany the new focus of the civil rights cause. Local police, however, refused to let the Albany movement turn into a national fiasco, instead protecting protesters from angry white mobs and treating the activists with civility. Even King’s two arrests in Albany failed to garner national media attention, and the movement eventually collapsed. Paradoxically, Albany demonstrated the necessity for violent white reactions to civil rights protests in order to make the “love and nonviolence” philosophy work.
The failure in Albany spurred the SCLC to redouble its efforts. In 1963, King and his fellow activists organized a massive rally in Birmingham, Alabama, arguably the most segregated city in America. Once again, the activists organized boycotts and sit-ins to goad white residents and city officials into reacting. In an unprecedented move, King organized hundreds of Birmingham high school students to protest segregation in a “children’s crusade,” hoping that images of persecuted youngsters would horrify moderate Americans.
This time, the tactic worked. City commissioner “Bull” Connor ordered police and firemen to use attack dogs and water cannons to subdue the peaceful protesters. Unexpectedly, many of Birmingham’s black residents began to fight back, defending the activists by attacking police. Northerners were shocked as they watched the violence unfold on television. King himself was arrested again, and in jail he took the opportunity to write his influential “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he explained the civil rights movement to his many critics. The letter was published and circulated throughout the country.
The violence in Birmingham prompted Robert Kennedy and the Justice Department to negotiate a settlement between the SCLC and city officials. The SCLC eventually agreed to end the boycotts and protests, but only after local merchants promised to hire more blacks and the city promised to enforce desegregation. Segregationists, however, protested the agreement and initiated a new wave of violence, forcing Kennedy to send 3,000 army troops to restore order in the city.
The events that took place in Birmingham and the resulting agreements changed the civil rights movement in two major ways. First, they mobilized the moderate majority of northern and southern whites against segregation. Second, the Birmingham campaign marked the first time poorer southern blacks began demanding equality alongside the lawyers, ministers, and students. The majority of blacks wanted immediate access to better jobs, housing, and education and wanted the country in general to be desegregated.
The growing public support for King and his fellow protesters convinced President Kennedy to fully endorse the movement and push for more civil rights legislation, regardless of the political fallout from southern conservatives. International embarrassment and accusations of hypocrisy from the Soviet Union also contributed to his decision to support the movement. In the summer of 1963, Kennedy appeared on national television and personally asked Congress to help safeguard blacks’ rights. He argued that the United States could not effectively fight oppression abroad if so many Americans lacked basic freedoms at home. He specifically wanted Congress to ban segregation and protect blacks’ voting rights.
Later that summer, the SCLC, NAACP, SNCC, and CORE worked together to organize the largest political rally in American history to help convince Congress to pass the president’s new civil rights bill. On August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 blacks and whites gathered peacefully in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington. There, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech, which with surging, sermonic declarations outlined the visions of the civil rights movement and called for racial equality.