Christopher W. Schmidt
One of the most significant protest campaigns of the civil rights era, the lunch counter sit-in movement began on February 1, 1960 when four young African American men sat down at the whites-only lunch counter of the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. Refused service, the four college students sat quietly until the store closed. They continued their protest on the following days, each day joined by more fellow students. Students in other southern cities learned what was happening and started their own demonstrations, and in just weeks, lunch counter sit-ins were taking place across the South. By the end of the spring, tens of thousands of black college and high school students, joined in some cases by sympathetic white students, had joined the sit-in movement. Several thousand went to jail for their efforts after being arrested on charges of trespass, disorderly conduct, or whatever other laws southern police officers believed they could use against the protesters.
The sit-ins arrived at a critical juncture in the modern black freedom struggle. The preceding years had brought major breakthroughs, such as the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling in 1954 and the successful Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956, but by 1960, activists were struggling to develop next steps. The sit-in movement energized and transformed the struggle for racial equality, moving the leading edge of the movement from the courtrooms and legislative halls to the streets and putting a new, younger generation of activists on the front lines. It gave birth to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most important activist groups of the 1960s. It directed the nation’s attention to the problem of racial discrimination in private businesses that served the public, pressured business owners in scores of southern cities to open their lunch counters to African American customers, and set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations across the nation.