In February 1960 a group of black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, refused to leave a whites-only lunch counter at which they were denied service. Their demonstration began the sit-in movement, a series of peaceful protests that brought renewed national attention to the injustices of the segregated South and eventually forced the federal government to protect the rights of African-Americans actively. Over several weeks the strategy spread to dozens of southern cities and towns; students from local colleges sat quietly for hours, studying or sometimes reading Bibles, while white employees refused to serve them. The students occupied all the seats at the counter and left only when it closed (which was often early, thanks to the protests). Frequently local townspeople shouted insults and threats, and in Nashville, Tennessee, the protesters were physically attacked. When the Nashville police arrived, the students, not their attackers, were arrested. As they tried to present their case in court, the judge literally turned his back to their lawyer.
As violent as the response to the sit-ins often was, the protestors did not respond in kind. Many of them had been taught strategies of nonviolent resistance such as those used by the great nationalist leader of India, Mohandas K. Gandhi. Several clergymen, black and white, who were members of a group called the Fellowship of Reconciliation, had been touring southern college campuses since 1958, conducting workshops in which some participants would play protesters and others would play the part of segregationists. Diane Nash, who participated in the workshops while a student at Nashville's Fisk University, recalled, "We would practice things such as how to protect your head from a beating, how to protect each other. If one person was taking a severe beating, we would practice other people putting their bodies between that person and the violence, so that the violence could be more distributed and hopefully no one would get seriously injured."
The First Victory
In mid April 1960 black students from throughout the South and northern white supporters came together on the campus of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, to discuss methods for coordinating protests, raising funds, and spreading the sit-in movement to other areas. They founded the SNCC. Before dawn two days later, the home of Z. Alexander Looby, the first African-American to serve on Nashville's city council and the lawyer who had represented the sit-in protesters in court, was destroyed by dynamite thrown from a passing car. A few hours later twenty-five hundred students and townspeople marched on city hall. When asked directly by the protesters, Nashville mayor Ben West had to admit that it was wrong to sell merchandise to a customer but refuse to serve that customer at the store's lunch counter. Several weeks later, the sit-in movement achieved its first major victory when six Nashville lunch counters began to serve black patrons.
Dr. King Goes to Jail
By the end of the summer the tide of the battle over the lunch counters was turning: twenty-seven Southern cities had agreed to integrate the restaurants in their community. SNCC began to focus its attention on other areas of social injustice. They organized "stand-ins" at segregated movie theaters and "sleep-ins" at segregated hotels as well as protests at the department stores which continued to segregate their lunch counters and dressing rooms. As with the first sit-ins, the overwhelming majority of protesters were young college students. In October 1960 the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested in Atlanta, Georgia, for participating in a sit-in at a Rich's department store. Already serving a twelve-month suspended sentence for driving with an out-of-state license, King was sentenced to four months in the Georgia state prison system. Since 1960 was an election year, civil rights activists encouraged presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy to help secure King's release. Senator Kennedy appealed to the mayor of Atlanta and also telephoned King's wife to express his sympathy. His support of the sit-in movement helped him carry several southern states in a close election. What started as a series of isolated protests in a handful of southern towns ultimately influenced the course of a presidential election.