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date: 25 February 2024

The Sit-In Movementfree

The Sit-In Movementfree

  • Christopher W. SchmidtChristopher W. SchmidtChicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology


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.


  • 20th Century: Post-1945
  • Legal History
  • Political History
  • Urban History

What Was the Sit-In Movement?

When the lunch counter sit-in movement of 1960 “ripped through Dixie with the speed of a rocket and the contagion of the old plague” (as a writer for the Chicago Defender put it), many were left wondering where this all came from.1 The students who led the movement emphasized the spontaneous elements of the sit-ins. The protests, they insisted over and over again, were nothing more than a necessary, commonsense response to this particular racial injustice.2 Civil rights groups, however, emphasized connections between the 1960 sit-ins and earlier protest campaigns.3 Both explanations contain seeds of truth. Even as the sit-in movement was a bold and largely unplanned venture into uncharted waters, established civil rights organizations played a critical role in its success. A movement this decentralized built upon thousands of individual and small-group decisions and cannot be captured by any single explanation. It was spontaneous and independent. It was also a product of a complex network of communication between protest communities and the result of years of careful organization and planning.4


Sporadic sit-in protests at lunch counters and restaurants took place in the two decades preceding the 1960 sit-in movement. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) initiated sit-in protests at restaurants in Chicago in the early 1940s and then led a successful challenge to lunch counter segregation in St. Louis variety stores between 1949 and 1953. In the 1950s, CORE organized more sit-ins across the upper South and border states through the 1950s; in 1959, its activists organized sit-in protests in Miami.5

In the late 1950s, members of the Oklahoma City Youth Council branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led by Clara Luper, a high school teacher and advisor to the Youth Council, organized a series of lunch counter sit-in protests. Luper took a group of black children, ages seven to fifteen, into a downtown Oklahoma City chain store where, after being refused service, they sat until closing time. After several days of protests, the store’s management decided to desegregate lunch counters at its nearly forty stores in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa. Between 1957 and 1960, NAACP Youth Councils followed Oklahoma City’s lead and organized sit-ins at lunch counter in sixteen cities in the Midwest.6

Although some scholars have emphasized the importance of these protests, even insisting that these sit-ins mark the true beginning of the sit-in movement, it is important to recognize the limitations of these campaigns. The press gave them little coverage. The scattered protests never coalesced in a way that would force the white media to pay attention. The desegregation that occurred did not necessarily stand out at a time when segregation practices in the region already were breaking down. Protest victories could be frustratingly uneven, as lunch counter operators would desegregate and then sometimes quietly revert back to their old policies. The NAACP national office made no effort to publicize the actions of their youth branches and sometimes even urged local leaders to stop the protests.7 There is also little evidence that the students who initiated the 1960 sit-in movement knew much, if anything, about these earlier protests.8


When Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond walked into the Greensboro Woolworth’s on the afternoon of February 1, 1960, their protest could very well have followed the pattern of these earlier sit-ins. The first-year students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College could have gotten some local attention. They could have convinced a local restaurant operator to stop discriminating. Maybe, as in Oklahoma, they could have even inspired some others to follow. But this time, to everyone’s surprise, including the four who started it all, it all turned out quite differently. The four became twenty on day two of the Greensboro protest and within a week some two hundred protesters were demonstrating at downtown lunch counters.9 The manager of the Woolworth knew that if he chose to press trespassing charges against the students, the police would arrest them. But he chose not to. “Let them sit there,” he told his employees. “Don’t say anything to them.”10

Students rejected a proposal from city leaders for a two-week moratorium on protests to explore whether local custom would allow for integrated seating, and the next day an estimated 600 people—integrationists, segregationists, and onlookers—crammed into the Woolworth eating area. The Ku Klux Klan arrived, joining forces with what one reporter described as “[g]angs of shoving, shouting [white] teenagers.” Police removed a number of whites who were verbally abusing the protesters and arrested three white men.11 Someone called in a bomb threat, and police emptied the store. “The Negro students set up a wild round of cheering as the announcement of closing was made and carried their leaders out on their shoulders,” reported the local newspaper. They moved on to the nearby Kress store, which promptly shut down. Then they marched back to campus, chanting “It’s all over” and “We whipped Woolworth.” That night the students held another mass meeting where they agreed to hold off on further sit-ins to allow time for “negotiation and study.”12

The Spark Catches

Events in Greensboro attracted not just local but also national press attention and inspired college students in other North Carolina cities to start their own sit-ins. On February 8, students in Durham and Winston-Salem sat in at their local lunch counters. In the following days, students in Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville, Elizabeth City, High Point, and Concord joined what quickly became a statewide movement.

This first wave of North Carolina sit-ins followed the Greensboro model. They often began with a bold, spontaneous act. The Winston-Salem sit-ins began when Carl Matthews, a graduate of the Winston-Salem Teachers College who worked in a local factory, sat down at the lunch counter of the Kress store in the middle of the lunch rush. Later that afternoon, six other African Americans, several of them students at the Teachers College, joined him—and the movement grew from there.13 In Raleigh, protests were sparked by a local radio announcer who confidently predicted that area college students would not follow Greensboro’s lead. Intent on proving him wrong, a group of students went downtown the following morning and began the Raleigh sit-ins.14

As in Greensboro, segregationists hovered around the demonstrations, bringing intimidation, sporadic acts of violence, and threats of more serious retribution. When white youths threw eggs at black students seated at the Raleigh Woolworth’s lunch counter, the protesters “gave no reaction either to this or to jeers and catcalls thrown at them,” noted a reporter.15 Bomb threats became a common tactic for disrupting sit-ins.

There were also variations from the template established in Greensboro. In High Point, high school rather than college students initiated the sit-ins, and they received close guidance from adult civil rights leaders. The High Point protests also ran into some new obstacles. The day after sit-in protests led to a shutdown of two variety store lunch counters, a local merchant paid a group of white high school students to arrive early and occupy all the lunch counter stools at the Woolworth’s so the black protesters had nowhere to sit. When they came back the next day, the store had converted its lunch counter into a display counter, each stool adorned with a box of Valentine chocolates. The students converted their sit-in to a stand-in and forced the manager to shut down the store.16

On February 11, students in Hampton, Virginia brought the sit-in movement beyond North Carolina. The next day, students in two more Virginia cities, Norfolk and Portsmouth, joined. Sit-ins continued to spread to new cities in North Carolina: Salisbury on February 16; Shelby on the 18th; Henderson on the 25th; and Chapel Hill on the 28th.17

The first student arrests took place on February 12 when the manager of a Raleigh shopping center brought trespassing charges against forty-one students who had gathered outside a Woolworth whose lunch counter they had just forced to shut down. Fined $10 each, their convictions were quickly overturned on appeal.18 (The fact that they were arrested on the sidewalk and not inside the business itself meant they could claim the arrest violated their rights under the First Amendment.) On the same day, the movement spread deeper into the South, reaching Florida and South Carolina. In Rock Hill, South Carolina, white youths knocked a black protester from his stool, someone threw a bottle of ammonia into a store, setting off fumes that stung the eyes of the demonstrators inside, and then bomb threats cleared two targeted stores. The New York Times covered the Rock Hill protest on its front page—another first for the sit-in movement.19


No group of students was more ready for the sit-in movement than those in Nashville, where they had been preparing a sit-in campaign months before the Greensboro Four took their seats.20 Reverend James Lawson, an African American divinity student at Vanderbilt University and devoted follower of the nonviolent principles espoused by Mahatma Gandhi, had been leading workshops on nonviolent protest techniques for several years. Lawson organized small-scale test sit-ins of local lunch counters in late 1959, with the goal of starting sit-in protests after the holidays.

News of the Greensboro protests spurred students in Nashville to follow through on their plans. On February 13, over one hundred students sat at lunch counters in three Nashville variety stores. The next sit-in, five days later, brought out 200 students; almost double that number came out two days later. The protests were carefully organized, orderly, and, as far as the sit-ins went, rather uneventful. The same could not be said about the next wave of protests, in late February. At the Nashville Woolworth store, one of five stores targeted, hundreds of people—reporters, supporters, opponents, and curious onlookers—crammed in to watch the sit-in demonstration, “like spectators at a boxing match,” according to one account. After more than an hour of escalating assaults against the students seated at the lunch counter, some white teenagers dragged three protesters from their stools and started beating them. “The three Negroes did not fight back, but stumbled and ran out of the store; the whites, their faces red with anger, screamed at them to stop and fight, to please goddam stop and fight. None of the other Negroes at the counter ever looked around. It was over in a minute.”21 Only then did the police step in, arresting eighty-one of the sit-in protesters (but none of the white assailants) on disorderly conduct charges.


Despite having many of the ingredients that would seem to predict robust sit-in movement activism, including a number of African American colleges and a group of committed activist students, the Atlanta movement was slow to get going. Atlanta students would not launch their own movement until the following fall, after the larger lunch counter sit-in movement had run its course.22

After Greensboro, Atlanta student leaders sought the counsel of older black community leaders who urged them to direct their energies toward supporting ongoing negotiation and litigation efforts. Then, in early March, as students were preparing a series of downtown sit-in protests, university leaders persuaded them to postpone their protests once again, suggesting they first prepare a statement of principles. Published in Atlanta newspapers on March 9, “An Appeal for Human Rights” was a forceful denunciation of Jim Crow and a declaration of support for the sit-in movement. “We do not intend to wait placidly for those which are already legally and morally ours to be meted out to us one at a time,” proclaimed the student leaders. “Today's youth will not sit by submissively, while being denied all of the rights, privileges, and joys of life.”23

After several more false starts, delays, and bickering among factions within the civil rights community, Atlanta’s students finally joined the sit-in movement. Lawyers had advised the students to focus their protests on publicly owned facilities and facilities that were involved in interstate transportation (and thus subject to federal nondiscrimination rules). At precisely 11:30 a.m. on March 15, after placing an anonymous phone call to the United Press International detailing their plans, Atlanta students launched a coordinated series of sit-in demonstrations at ten eating establishments.24 According to one news account, “[n]early everyone concerned, demonstrators, arresting police, onlookers, behaved quietly, unemotionally, as though in the performance of a ritual.”25 Police arrested seventy-seven demonstrators at cafeterias in the capitol, the county courthouse, city hall, and several bus terminals and train stations, charging them under a newly passed state antitrespassing law. Georgia Governor Ernest Vandiver personally ordered the arrest of the students who targeted the state capitol cafeteria and then issued a statement that described “these mass violations of State law and private property rights” as “subversive in character.”26

The day after the mass arrests, Donald Hollowell, a prominent African American lawyer who was representing the arrested students, persuaded the students to stop their protests until they received a “final judgment” in the pending court cases. The students turned their efforts to organizing a boycott of downtown department stores. An organized lunch counter sit-in campaign would not return to Atlanta until the following fall.27

Violence in a Nonviolent Movement

White segregationist attacks on sit-in protesters escalated as the protests drew more participants, spread further south, and, in some instances, as student protesters decided to fight back when abused. An increase in violent confrontations between protesters and counterprotesters was a cost of success for the sit-in movement.

More violence was all but inevitable when the movement reached the Deep South. On February 25, thirty-five students sat in at the courthouse cafeteria in Montgomery, Alabama. The governor demanded that Alabama State College, an all-black institution, expel students who took part in the protests. In an expression of solidarity with those threatened with expulsion, 1,200 students from the college marched to the state capital. Montgomery police did nothing when Ku Klux Klan members arrived, armed with baseball bats, and attacked the marchers.28

By mid-March, one reporter noted “increasing racial hostility—a belligerence on both sides that goes beyond the immediate issue of whether Negroes should be served, while they’re sitting down, at segregated lunch counters.”29 In Savannah, a white youth was arrested after punching a black sit-in demonstrator and breaking his jaw. The police hooked up fire hoses, ready to break up the crowds of whites and blacks.30 In late March, following a KKK meeting in Anniston, Alabama, members went around town setting up burning crosses and someone threw a fire bomb in the yard of the home of a lawyer representing sit-in protesters.31 The segregationist backlash took a sadistic turn in Houston. Two days after sit-ins began there, a group of segregationist vigilantes captured and tortured a young African American man, carving the letters “KKK” across his chest.32

Although participants in the first wave of sit-in protests professed a commitment to nonviolence, this commitment weakened as the movement grew. Most sit-in demonstrators recognized nonviolent resistance to oppression as a strategically effective approach, but they did not necessarily embrace it as a way of life. As the sit-in movement swept more and more people into its orbit, a growing number of participants came to the demonstrations without a strong commitment to nonviolence, either as an ideology or a strategy. The violence that accompanied the sit-ins was overwhelmingly white brutality against African Americans and their white allies. But in some instances African Americans did not turn the other cheek.33

After two weeks of rising tension and scattered white attacks on demonstrators, the first incident of black youths fighting back took place in High Point, North Carolina on February 15. School had been canceled because of a snowstorm, and a group of white youths took advantage of the day off to head down to the Woolworth’s that had been the target of several days of sit-in protests. They taunted and threw snowballs at the protesters, most of whom were high school students. When police stood by doing nothing, local NAACP leader Elton Cox declared, “We will not undergo embarrassment and assault again without fighting back.”34 After whites started punching black protesters leaving the local Woolworth store, some blacks returned their punches. The police stepped in, arresting two African Americans and one white. White abuse of the peaceful protesters was news; responding in kind was bigger news. “Negroes Fight Back in the South” was the headline the next day in the Amsterdam News, a New York-based black newspaper.35 The Atlanta Constitution ran the story under the headline, “Race Brawl Erupts at Restaurant.”36

The next days brought more violence, this time in Portsmouth, Virginia where, as in High Point, high school students led the local sit-in effort. After whites attempted to block a protest by arriving at a targeted lunch counter ahead of the demonstrators and occupying all the stools, several hundred black and white youths collected in the parking lot outside the store, some armed with hammers, wrenches, chains, and razors. A fight erupted. A black student leader attributed the violence to “this other element” of local blacks who were not part of the planned demonstration. A CORE field officer soon arrived in Portsmouth to conduct workshops in nonviolence for the students.37

In late February, sit-ins in Chattanooga, Tennessee led to two days of rioting. When police ordered a Kress lunch counter cleared after the store shut it down in the face of a sit-in demonstration, a brawl erupted involving about fifty black protesters and 150 white segregationists. Seven whites were arrested; there were no reported black arrests. The next day over one thousand whites were gathered in the downtown business district when demonstrators arrived. Police created a barrier to keep the two groups apart. Some threw bottles and rocks. Eleven blacks and nine whites were arrested. To break up those who refused to disperse, police turned fire hoses on both blacks and whites. When whites turned out in force the following day, the students decided to hold off on further protests.38

These events illustrate how as the sit-in movement expanded its ranks, it attracted more people who had little or no connection with the coordination efforts and nonviolence training used in Greensboro, Nashville, and other places where the movement was most organized. The discipline and commitment to nonviolence that defined the first wave of protests remained evident in many locations, but not everywhere.

Policing Jim Crow

Along with the increase in extralegal violence, white segregationists responded to the sit-ins with legal action. The legal options available to defenders of lunch counter segregation were somewhat different from other battles of the civil rights movement. When civil rights protests took place on public property, as most did, since protesters usually targeted southern local and state governments, government officials were the ones who decided whether to arrest the protesters or not. But lunch counter sit-ins typically took place on private property, so the initial choice of whether to call the police was in the hands of the operators of these businesses. Their typical reaction was not to call the police. Most of these men (they were almost always men) saw themselves as businessmen first and foremost, and sending potential paying customers to jail for doing nothing more than asking to spend money at their lunch counters was not good business. They wanted the protests to stop, and their most common approach to dealing with them was to just ignore the protesters or, if that did not work, to shut down their lunch counters.39

But some did call the police, and by the end of the spring thousands of young men and women would be arrested for taking part in sit-in protests. Arrests sometimes came quickly. In Atlanta and Montgomery, for example, police and lunch counter managers met coordinated sit-in protest campaigns with immediate arrests. Elsewhere, arrests only occurred after weeks of protest. In Greensboro, where protests began at the beginning of February 1960, the first arrests of sit-in protests did not happen until April. Sometimes the arrests came in ones and twos; sometimes there were mass arrests of protesters.

At a trial of seventy-five Nashville protesters, the judge promptly found protesters guilty of disorderly conduct and sentenced them to a fine of $50 or thirty days in jail. The students chose jail. The following day, four more Nashville students were found guilty of disorderly conduct and also chose to spend thirty-three days in jail rather than pay their fines. Three thousand supporters gathered outside the courthouse singing hymns and the National Anthem.40 Later that month, in Little Rock, a group of college students went straight from the city court, where they watched their classmates convicted on charges of breaching the peace for taking part in a sit-in protest, to a new round of downtown sit-ins. After they shut down several downtown lunch counters, they gathered at the state capital and sang “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”41 Students thus demonstrated a new tactic that would become an integral part of the sit-in movement: transforming judicial proceedings into a new protest platform.42

In Tallahassee, Florida, a local judge found eleven demonstrators guilty of disturbing the peace and chastised the students for their “complete disregard for private property rights” and for following “preachers, professors and organizations” who were using the students for “publicity purposes.” Three of the students chose to pay $300 fines; eight chose sixty-day jail sentences instead.43 The biggest single arrest of the sit-in movement took place in Orangeburg, South Carolina. When students heading toward a protest refused to turn back when ordered by police, they turned fire hoses on them. Since the jail could not contain the hundreds arrested, students were herded into a pen normally used as a chicken coop.44 In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a group of sit-in protesters were arrested on charges of disturbing the peace. (“How were they disturbing the peace?” the students’ lawyer asked the arresting officer at the subsequent trial. “By sitting there,” he answered.45) After finding them guilty, a judge doled out sentences of thirty days in jail plus a $100 fine. Administrators at Southern University also expelled eighteen students who took part in the sit-ins, leading to a mass student boycott of classes.46

The NAACP reported that by June almost 2,000 students had been arrested for taking part in the demonstrations, with more than $44,000 paid in fines and $100,000 put up for bail.47

Summer of 1960 and Beyond

When the spring term came to an end and many of the leaders and troops of the sit-in movement left campus, the lunch counter sit-in campaign, at least as a regionwide phenomenon, dissipated. Even before the end of the school year, there had been signs that the movement was slowing. The feverish excitement of those opening months was impossible to sustain. Much of the early energy of the protests was channeled into more organized forms, such as coordinated boycotts and negotiations. Protest leaders began to complain about lagging support among their classmates. With the end of the term, these challenges only increased.48

With most college students scattered to hometowns and summer jobs, the work of the sit-ins was left to others. High school students took over the protests in some cities.49 In Knoxville, where students had difficulty mobilizing an effective sit-in campaign, a group of black and white professionals (some of whom had criticized the student movement) formed a group they called the Associated Council for Full Citizenship and launched their own sit-ins. Their carefully orchestrated campaign was far more effective than the halting student protests that had preceded it, and in just over a month they convinced Knoxville’s merchants to provide nondiscriminatory service.50

By the summer of 1960, the lunch counter sit-in movement had fractured into countless local protest campaigns. The sit-ins, as its own distinctive movement, had run its course. The sit-in as a protest tactic, however, had not. It would remain one of the most powerful weapons of the larger civil rights movement for years to come.

What Caused the Sit-In Movement?

Frustration and Hope

What led this generation of young African Americans to this stunning act of collective defiance? When the reporters who rushed to cover the sit-ins asked this very question, the answers they received were a seemingly paradoxical mix of disillusionment and hopefulness. Sources of frustration were twofold. The students were deeply frustrated, of course, with the persistent inequities and indignities of life in the Jim Crow South. But they were also frustrated with the older generation of African Americans who they felt were not doing enough to challenge the status quo. Some chastised their parents for their apparent willingness to accept unjust racial practices. “Our adults are too worried about security to do anything,” complained a North Carolina student. “They are too afraid of their jobs. We’ve got to do it. And we’re not afraid.”51 Some expressed frustration with the tactics favored by older activists. “The legal redress, the civil-rights redress, are far too slow for the demands of our time,” declared James Lawson. “The sit-in is a break with the accepted tradition of change, of legislation and the courts. It is the use of a dramatic act to gain redress.”52

Intertwined with this frustration and disillusionment, the students also demonstrated a powerful strain of optimism. Early in their lives, President Truman had ended segregation in the military and Jackie Robinson had broken major league baseball’s color line. The United States Supreme Court had struck down state-mandated segregation policies in public schools in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 1957, Congress passed the first federal civil rights law since Reconstruction. Those who followed overseas events in the late 1950s saw African nations freeing themselves from European colonial control. Around the world, the black freedom struggle was making unprecedented gains. Many of these students were also the first in their family to attend college, and practically all experienced more economic security than their parents had growing up.

Yet despite dramatic victories in the Supreme Court and despite the passage of a new federal civil rights act, the daily lives of young black men and women in the South had not been transformed. Because they had reason to believe their lives would and should be better than those of their parents, the generation of African Americans who joined the sit-in movement in 1960 felt continued racial exclusion as more of an affront to their dignity than had their parents.

These interlocking strands of hope and frustration created a potent blend of emotions for African American college students at the dawn of the 1960s. Optimism that there was a better world in the offing, and that they had it in their power to bring it about, allowed them to turn frustration into mobilization.

Why Lunch Counters?

To understand why this generation of students was ready to do something does not answer another central question of the sit-in movement: Why, considering all the racial injustices they experienced on a daily basis in the Jim Crow South, did the students target lunch counters?

Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently summarized the “tragic inconveniences” of this particular form of racial oppression. “The answer,” he wrote, “lies in the fact that here the Negro has suffered indignities and injustices that cannot be justified or explained . . . In a real sense the ‘sit-ins’ represent more than a demand for service; they represent a demand for respect.”53 “Sitting at a lunch counter may seem like a small thing to some,” explained one participant, “but the right to do so is so inextricably bound up with the American idea of equality for all.”54 The fact that most department stores accepted their money everywhere else in the store, but then refused to let African American customers sit and eat at the lunch counter made this particular form of racism especially offensive. The raw, personal experience of exclusion from department store lunch counters pulled the student protesters toward this particular target.

Another factor also played a role in pulling the students toward this protest target: availability. As African American journalist Louis Lomax explained, the protesters “wanted to get into the fight and they chose the market place, the great center of American egalitarianism, not because it had any overwhelming significance for them but because it was there—accessible and segregated.”55 The department store lunch counter was a target of opportunity.

The legal situation in 1960 also shaped the students’ choice of target. Racial discrimination at lunch counters and other public accommodations was not a central concern for racial justice groups prior to 1960, in part because civil rights lawyers saw other targets as more vulnerable to legal challenge. They recognized the distinctively difficult legal dilemmas raised by privately operated businesses that served the public and focused their energies elsewhere.56 Few of the students appreciated these concerns about constitutional doctrine. What they knew was that this was an offensive practice and no one seemed to be doing anything about it. Among the students themselves and among outside sympathizers, the sit-ins resonated in large part because it was clear that this was the students’ protest and that it was not being orchestrated by far-away civil rights strategists or radical ideologues.57

Creating a Movement

To understand why students were ready to act and why they selected lunch counters still leaves one more key question: Why did these protest spread so quickly and so far? In other words, why did a series of protests turn into a movement?

The simplicity of the sit-in protest was critical to its success. As a protest tactic, the genius of the lunch counter sit-in was its ability to convey a clear, powerful message through such a simple act. The protests were easily replicated. New groups of students could be readily drawn into the movement. A phone call from a friend or family member, a picture in a newspaper, a report on the radio was often all that was needed to plant the spark in another city. Through the winter and spring of 1960, students across the South performed the same basic routines again and again. Put on nice clothes. Gather for a discussion of logistics, some final words of inspiration, perhaps a prayer. Then walk into a local drugstore or department store, sit down at the lunch counter, and request service. Staging a sit-in protest did not require elaborate planning (although as the sit-in movement unfolded, civil rights organizations and lawyers played an increasingly significant role). Just a handful of people could initiate one, as the Greensboro Four showed the world. The remarkable spread of the sit-in protest across the South was made possible by the accessibility and replicability of the protest action itself.58

The tactic of the sit-in protests allowed for an immediate sense of accomplishment for the students. Many different outcomes could be seen as an achievement. Being part of this new, defiant movement was an achievement. Creating student-run organizations that would strategize and coordinate sit-in protests might be cited as a victory for the movement. According to one observer, the sit-in “workshop” not only trained students on the mechanism of a lunch counter protest, it also functioned as a “cohesive, morale-building mechanism which served to infuse an ideology into the Negro student participants.”59 Students even saw going to jail as a critically important experience. When arrested, some defiantly refused to pay bail, electing instead to sit in jail until their trials; when convicted, some chose jail sentences over paying a fine. The students thus transformed the very response that segregationists saw as their greatest weapon against the protesters—the police officer, the paddy wagon, and the jail cell—into a victory for the protesters.60 Tangible, small-scale goals—forcing a lunch counter to shut down, pressuring city leaders to create a committee to discuss the issue, perhaps even persuading a lunch counter manager to serve the protesters—had the tremendous advantage in that they held the possibility of immediate attainment.

Also critical to the spread of the sit-in movement were communication networks. Most people learned of the protests through radio and newspapers. The sit-ins were a major news story across the South, particularly when the protests brought out the white counterprotests and sporadic episodes of violence. News accounts were not only an inspiration and a challenge to African American students in cities where protests had yet to happen, they also sometimes provided quite detailed operating instructions for those planning their own protests. When asked what moved them to act, one early protester answered simply, “Well, we read the papers.”61

The sit-in movement also drew on existing organizational networks within the African American community, particularly those that linked black colleges and churches. “Students, faculties and college presidents testified that after the Greensboro incident a strange fever swept across the campuses of the country’s 120 Negro colleges,” reported a journalist. “Within a week of Greensboro there was scarcely another topic of conversation on Negro campuses.”62 In many southern communities, the black church provided the essential tools for protest mobilization. It was a place where students met and organized. Activist church leaders regularly played key roles in organizing sit-in protests. And relationships among church leaders provided valuable communication networks that helped spread the reports that fueled the sit-in movement.63

Although the students themselves proclaimed over and over that they were acting on their own and that they were not following the lead of adults or “outside” civil rights organizations, adult activists were never far from the scene of the sit-ins. In some places, they played a minimal role in spreading and supporting the protests, but in other places their role was essential. Particularly important were the local chapters, youth councils, and college chapters of the NAACP and activists associated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Although the role of established civil rights organizations was sporadic in the early weeks of the movement, it increased in significance as the movement progressed through the spring of 1960.64

The success of the sit-in movement was also a product of the ability of the lunch counter protest to effectively communicate a message to various audiences. From the white store operator standing across the lunch counter, to other customers, to those who saw photographs and read about the events in the newspapers, the core message the students sought to convey was clear. As one student protester explained in a documentary NBC aired on the protests, the goal of the movement was to “project the idea that here sits beside me another human being.”65 Racial discrimination in public life was wrong. African Americans were not going to accept being treated as “second-class citizens.” They were willing to risk abuse and possible arrest to make their point. The students also sought to send a message to their parents’ generation and to established civil rights organizations: they had a new method of protest. It would not wait for permission from lawyers or organizations. By the simple act of taking a seat at a lunch counter, young African Americans were able to convey to a wide, diverse audience all of this: the fundamental wrongness of racial segregation; the depth of their commitment to challenging racial injustice; and their impatience with established modes of civil rights reform.66

Before February 1960, no one could have predicted that this many people would risk arrest and physical attack to protest this particular facet of life in Jim Crow America. Even the people who took part in the protests often seemed surprised at the acts of courage and sacrifice they were witnessing all around them.

What Did the Sit-In Movement Achieve?

The student sit-in movement of 1960 reshaped and reinvigorated the struggle for racial equality. It marked a new phase of the civil rights movement, one in which mass participatory direct-action protest would become the leading edge of the movement’s demand for social and political change. Activists who were younger, less patient, and less willing to compromise than the older generation of civil rights activists led this wave of assaults against Jim Crow. As the historian and movement participant Howard Zinn wrote in 1964, “[T]he great social upsurge of post-war America is the Negro revolt, and this revolt has gotten its most powerful impetus from young people, who gave it a new turn in 1960 and today, as anonymous as infantrymen everywhere, form the first rank in a nonviolent but ferocious war against the old order.”67 The sit-ins elevated the role of women in the civil rights movement. In contrast to the male-dominated established civil rights organizations, the decentralized mass protest movement offered opportunities for women not only to participate but often to assume leadership roles. Ella Baker, the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, played a critical role in helping to organize the student movement. Diane Nash became a leading spokesperson for the Nashville student movement, and Patricia and Priscilla Stephens did the same for the Tallahassee movement. The sit-in movement also led to the creation of an influential new civil rights organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), whose challenge to the established ways of civil rights reform and the established civil rights organizations initiated a cycle of tensions, breaks, and alliances between the youth activists and the older generation that energized and challenged the larger civil rights movement throughout the 1960s.


Two months into the sit-in movement, Ella Baker took the lead in organizing a conference for student activists. The “Youth Leadership Meeting” was held at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, in mid-April. Baker assured the students that this was not a ploy by older civil rights activists to take over the student movement. She worked throughout the meeting and afterward to ensure that the students remained in control of the movement they had started. The students, she wrote proudly in her summary of the meeting, “were intolerant of anything that smacked of manipulation or domination.”68

The meeting brought together 142 student leaders from across the South.69 After listening to King encourage the students to “consider training a group of volunteers who willingly go to jail rather than pay bail or fines,” the students issued a statement urging protesters to do just that. (Some had already chosen this path.70) James Lawson gave an electrifying address at the opening of the conference in which he defined the student movement in sharp opposition to established civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, which he criticized for failing to appreciate the value of mass protest.71

Perhaps most consequentially, the conference led to the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It was initially conceived of as a temporary organization that would help guide the local student protest movements that were already under way around the South. SNCC would soon become one of the most consequential organizations of the civil rights movement. Its founders, many of whom were drawn from the dedicated Nashville group of student activists, created a decentralized community-based organization, based on consensus building among smaller groups, and direct-action protest tactics. Among its achievements in the coming years were organizing the Freedom Rides in 1961 and the Freedom Summer voter registration campaign in 1964.72

Local Victories

At first the breakthroughs were small and uncertain: a lunch counter shut down or, in a few cases, the quiet desegregation of service. The first negotiated citywide lunch counter desegregation brought about by the movement took place in San Antonio, Texas where, on March 15, 1960, before the protests actually hit their stores, local business leaders agreed to end their segregation policies. Galveston, Texas soon followed San Antonio’s lead. By late spring, lunch counters in eleven cities had desegregated under pressure from sit-in protests.73

The most dramatic breakthrough of the sit-in movement occurred in Nashville. After weeks of sit-ins and failed negotiations, segregationists struck back, bombing the home of Z. Alexander Looby, an African American member of the Nashville city council and attorney who was representing the students. (Looby and his wife escaped injury.) Nearly 4,000 students marched to City Hall to confront Mayor Ben West about the escalating violence. When asked if he believed the lunch counters in Nashville should be desegregated, West, for the first time, publicly sided with the students. The mayor’s dramatic statement helped pressure storeowners, already hurting from the combined effects of protests and boycotts, to desegregate their lunch counters.74

Nashville’s carefully orchestrated integration affair served as a model for subsequent lunch counter desegregation agreements. At 3:00 p.m. on May 10, after the lunch crowds had cleared, a group of African Americans, “carefully chosen, middle-class, well-dressed, well-mannered,” according to one news account, entered six downtown stores, sat down, and were served. One reason for the prosaic nature of the event was that the agreement under which the lunch counters desegregated included a news blackout: local radio and television stations and newspapers did not publicize the event in advance. Most of the other people in the store were plainclothes policemen. During the three-day interim period, the agreement required blacks to only sit with other blacks, and no blacks would ask for service on the first Saturday of desegregated service (since this was the day “country people” came into the city to shop). Although the event lacked the tense drama of the protests that had shaken the city in the previous months (“How much can you write about a mother and a child eating a hamburger?” complained one reporter), it did, for a moment at least, symbolize something of an achievement for a city whose citizens prided themselves on being better than their southern neighbors when it came to race relations.75

The trickle of desegregation victories strengthened in the coming months. Operators of targeted stores took advantage of the slowing of protests during the summer to make changes as inconspicuously as possible. By midsummer, twenty-seven southern cities had desegregated lunch counters in response to sit-ins.76 On July 25, the Woolworth and Kress stores in Greensboro served their first black customers at the lunch counter. “What began quietly at a Greensboro variety store lunch counter six months ago—and then mushroomed into the South’s most explosive issue—ended quietly at the same location,” wrote the editors of the Greensboro Daily News.77 “Sit-Ins Victorious Where They Began” ran the front-page headline in the New York Times.78

Legal Change

In addition to changing service policies on the local level, the sit-ins also set in motion a national debate over racial discrimination in public accommodations. The protest movement took an issue that was not at the top of the agendas of civil rights activists or liberal policy makers and transformed it into one of the most pressing issues for the nation, debated in town councils, corporate board rooms, editorial pages, courtrooms, on the presidential campaign trail, and on the floor of Congress. This national debate culminated with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which included a provision that outlawed racial discrimination in eating facilities across the nation.

In the Courts

The courts, particularly the United States Supreme Court, struggled with the sit-ins. Thousands of students were arrested for their involvement with the lunch counter sit-ins and were charged with crimes such as vagrancy, loitering, disturbing the peace, and trespassing. Hundreds of the resulting convictions were appealed and, between 1961 and 1964, the justices of the Supreme Court faced round after round of these “sit-in cases.”79

As an act of social protest, one of the great strengths of the sit-in was its ability to clearly display the fundamental wrongness of Jim Crow. Yet this moral clarity became considerably less clear when translated into a legal claim. Supreme Court justices whose sympathies lay on the side of the students and the cause of civil rights generally had difficulty dealing with these cases. A majority was always able to find a way to overturn the students’ convictions, but the justices fractured over the legal rationale for doing so. They overturned protester convictions on narrow grounds, concluding that there was insufficient evidence to support a conviction or that there was direct state encouragement of or involvement in the lunch counter manager’s decision to discriminate.

The looming question in the sit-in cases had to do with the reach of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides that “no state shall deny to any person . . . the equal protection of the laws.” The central constitutional question for the sit-ins was whether the government was responsible for the racial discrimination in these cases. This area of constitutional law is known as the “state action doctrine.”

Judges had to determine whether the operator of a “public accommodation,” a private business whose very purpose was to serve the public and who received a license from the state for this purpose, violated the equal protection requirement of the Constitution when he refused to serve African American customers. (This kind of racial discrimination, if practiced by a state-operated facility, such as a town beach, municipal golf course, or courthouse cafeteria, would have been held unconstitutional.) If one accepted that the restaurant operator’s discriminatory choice was a “private” one, like selecting guests to one’s home or membership in a private club, and thus was not constrained by the Constitution, judges still had to consider the fact that the police arrested the protesters and judges then convicted them for violating state law. Were southern states denying African Americans equal protection of the laws when they enforced the discriminatory policies of private business owners?

As a result of the sit-ins, these complexities of constitutional law, which for years had been puzzling the courts, lawyers, and legal scholars in other contexts, suddenly became one of the most urgent issues facing the nation.80 The Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in all the cases involving school desegregation it faced in the decade following Brown, fractured in the sit-in cases. Although the justices found ways to overturn the convictions of those who took part in the sit-ins, they remained divided on the core constitutional question the sit-ins raised. As a matter of constitutional law, it remains the case today that a business owner who refuses service to a customer because of that customer’s race does not violate the Constitution, nor does the state violate the Constitution if its officials use criminal prosecutions to protect the property rights of the discriminating business owner.

In Congress

The ultimate legal victory of the sit-in movement came not from the Supreme Court but from Congress, and it came more than four years after the movement began. When the sit-ins first spread across the South in 1960, the possibility of a nationwide public accommodations law was, in the words of one observer, “so remote that a discussion of it is largely academic.”81 Not only was the constitutional foundation for such a law unclear, the very idea of a federal nondiscrimination requirement in public accommodations was highly controversial and, considering the power held by long-serving southern Senators and their ability to use the filibuster, unlikely to pass. Yet the sit-in movement, and the series of civil right protests that erupted across the South in its wake, would transform the political landscape.

Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations across the nation. The Supreme Court not only quickly upheld the law, it used the law as a justification to throw out the thousands of pending convictions of sit-in protesters. “The law the sit-inners had helped to create had protected them,” civil rights lawyer Jack Greenberg noted with satisfaction.82

Discussion of the Literature

Although historians have frequently written about the sit-in movement, the only book dedicated entirely to the subject is Christopher Schmidt’s The Sit-Ins: Protest and Legal Change in the Civil Rights Era.83 This book, which gives particular attention to legal issues related to the sit-ins, examines the sit-in movement and its impact from various perspectives: the student protesters themselves, the civil rights lawyers who defended the students in court, people who did not participate in the movement but sympathized with its goals, business operators and southern politicians who defended segregation, the justices of the US Supreme Court who decided the sit-in cases, and the government officials and elected representatives who drafted and debated the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Many of the best historical accounts of the sit-ins center on particular communities where students organized protests. William H. Chafe includes an excellent chapter on the Greensboro sit-in movement in Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom.84 Tomiko Brown-Nagin offers two deeply researched chapters on the student movement in Atlanta in Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement; she is particularly insightful on the often tense relationship between the students, older leaders of the black community, and civil rights lawyers.85 In The Children, David Halberstam drew on his own experiences as a young reporter in Nashville, Tennessee in the spring of 1960 to construct a portrait of the leaders of the Nashville sit-in movement and their subsequent lives.86 John Kirk has insightfully explored the sit-in movement in Little Rock, Arkansas.87

Historical profiles of various civil rights organizations often include valuable material on the sit-in movement. Clayborne Carson’s classic account of SNCC includes material on the sit-ins, as does August Meier and Elliot Rudwick’s history of CORE.88 Thomas Bynum has written on the NAACP and the sit-ins.89

Sociologist Aldon D. Morris’s account of the organizational dynamics of the sit-in movement in The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, which emphasizes the importance of the black church and civil rights organizations, has been particularly influential.90 Sociologist Francesca Polletta has examined the ways in which student demonstrators described their actions, particularly their insistence on the spontaneous nature of their movement.91

Legal scholars have long debated the connection between the Supreme Court, particularly its Brown decision, and subsequent civil rights developments.92 In his essential From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, Michael Klarman argues that legal scholars and civil rights lawyers tend to exaggerate Brown’s role in sparking civil rights protests, concluding that the linkages between the Court’s decision and the sit-ins were, at best, “indirect.”93 Schmidt builds on Klarman’s revisionist account, emphasizing the importance of these linkages—and, more generally, legal factors historians have tended to overlook—in making the sit-ins possible.94

Recent historical accounts have given more attention to those who stood opposed to the sit-in protests. George Lewis and Clive Webb have written insightful essays on segregationist reactions to the sit-ins, and Schmidt’s Sit-Ins includes a chapter on defenders of segregation.95 Economic historian Gavin Wright’s Sharing the Prize analyzes the factors that contributed to the demise of racial discrimination in public accommodations.96

Primary Sources

Primary sources on the sit-ins can be divided into four groupings. One group is first-person accounts of people involved in the protests. CORE published a collection of reports of student activists.97 There have also been many oral histories of those who were involved in the sit-in movement, and some participants have written memoirs.98 Various scholars studied the sit-ins as they were occurring, and their master’s theses, dissertations, and published works often include firsthand insights on the protests.99

Second, there are the papers of civil rights organizations that played a role in the sit-ins. Although SNCC is the organization most closely identified with the sit-in movement, the organization’s papers include relatively little on the critical opening months of the sit-ins, since it was not founded until April 1960, midway through the sit-in movement.100 CORE’s papers are valuable for not only the 1960 movement but also other sit-in protests with which the group was involved.101

The best single manuscript collection for studying the sit-ins is the NAACP papers.102 Although the organization often was not at the forefront of the sit-in movement, its national office and field offices closely monitored the unfolding events. The papers also include fascinating material on the struggles of the national office to identify a place for itself in this new phase of direct-action protest. Also closely monitoring the sit-in movement was the Southern Regional Council, a prominent voice of southern liberalism and a strong supporter of the sit-ins, as reflected in the research reports the group issued.103 Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers are also an excellent source of material on the sit-ins.104

A third group of primary materials are archives connected with business operators and public officials who confronted the sit-in protests. These sources can be found in every state in which sit-ins took place. The papers of Luther Hodges, North Carolina’s governor during the sit-ins, are particularly valuable.105 The papers of the manager of the Greensboro Woolworth’s also include some fascinating material.106

A fourth grouping of source materials are media accounts.107 The sit-ins were a major news event, attracting not only local newspaper reporters, but also the national wires, press, and television networks. Among local newspapers, the Greensboro Daily News provided particularly thorough coverage of the North Carolina protests from the start.108 The New York Times had reporters on the scene of many of the major sit-in campaigns, as did the Chicago Defender, the nation’s leading black newspaper. Some of the best contemporary accounts of the sit-ins were by journalists writing for periodicals.109 Also valuable is a documentary NBC aired in December 1960, which profiled the Nashville protests.110

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
  • Brown-Nagin, Tomiko. Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • Chafe, William H. Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1980.
  • Halberstam, David. The Children. New York, NY: Random House, 1998.
  • Klarman, Michael J. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Morgan, Iwan, and Philip Davies, eds. From Sit-Ins to SNCC: The Student Movement in the 1960s. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012.
  • Morris, Aldon D. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York, NY: Free Press, 1984.
  • Schmidt, Christopher W. “Divided by Law: The Sit-Ins and the Role of the Courts in the Civil Rights Movement.” Law and History Review 33 (2015): 93–149.
  • Schmidt, Christopher W. The Sit-Ins: Protest and Legal Change in the Civil Rights Era. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2018.
  • Wolff, Miles. Lunch at the 5 & 10. [1970] rev. ed. Chicago, IL: Ivan Dee, 1990.
  • Wright, Gavin. Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.


  • 1. L. F. Palmer, “New Face of Young Negro America,” Chicago Defender, March 21, 1960, 1, 9, 11.

  • 2. See Francesca Polletta, It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006), chap. 2.

  • 3. Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York, NY: Free Press, 1984), 188–215.

  • 4. Christopher W. Schmidt, The Sit-Ins: Protest and Legal Change in the Civil Rights Era (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2018), chap. 1.

  • 5. August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, CORE: A Study of the Civil Rights Movement, 1942–1968 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1973), 3–14, 91, 102; and Morris, Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, 188–192.

  • 6. Clara Luper, Behold the Walls (Oklahoma City: Jim Wire, 1979); Morris, Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, 192–193; Ronald Walters, “The Great Plains Sit-In Movement, 1958–1960,” Great Plains Quarterly 16 (Spring 1996): 85–94; Gretchen Cassel Eick, Dissent in Wichita: The Civil Rights Movement in the Midwest, 1954–72 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 1–11; and Thomas Bynum, NAACP Youth and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1936–1965 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2013), 95–99.

  • 7. Martin Oppenheimer, “The Southern Student Movement: Year 1,” Journal of Negro Education 33 (1964): 396–403, at 397; and Morris, Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, 124–125.

  • 8. Paul Ernest Wehr, “The Sit-Down Protests: A Study of a Passive Resistance Movement in North Carolina” (master’s thesis, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1960), 19–20; and James H. Laue, Direct Action and Desegregation, 1960–1962: Toward a Theory of Rationalization of Protest (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1989) (reprint of PhD diss., Harvard University, 1965), 147.

  • 9. On the Greensboro sit-ins, see Miles Wolff, Lunch at the 5 & 10 (1970; rev. ed., Chicago, IL: Ivan Dee, 1990); and William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1980), 112–120.

  • 10. Wolff, Lunch at the 5 & 10, 15; Schmidt, Sit-Ins, 93–97.

  • 11. “White Men Arrested at Sitdown,” Greensboro Daily News, February 6, 1960, B1; and “Bomb Scares Halt Negro Sitdown,” Atlanta Constitution, February 7, 1960, 18A.

  • 12. “A&T Students Call Two-Week Recess In Protest Here,” Greensboro Daily News, February 7, 1960, A1.

  • 13. “Demonstration Grows,” Greensboro Daily News, February 9, 1960, A3; and Clarence H. Patrick, Lunch Counter Desegregation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (Pamphlet distributed by the Southern Regional Council, 1960), 4.

  • 14. “Resistance Move to Continue,” Greensboro Daily News, February 12, 1960, A10; and Helen Fuller, “‘We Are All So Happy’,” New Republic, April 25, 1960, 13–16, at 14.

  • 15. “Eggs Spray Negro In Cafe Flareup,” Atlanta Constitution, February 11, 1960, 12.

  • 16. “Lunch Counter Strikes Spread to High Point,” Greensboro Daily News, February 12, 1960, A1, A6; Almetta C. Brooks, “White Patrons Balk Negro Sitdowners,” Greensboro Daily News, February 13, 1960, A3; and “Negro Pupils Crowd Store; It Closes,” Greensboro Daily News, February 14, 1960, A1.

  • 17. Southern Regional Council, “A Chronological Listing of the Cities in Which Demonstrations Have Occurred, February 1–March 31, 1960.”

  • 18. “43 Negroes Fined in Raleigh Court,” New York Times, March 29, 1960, 28.

  • 19. Claude Sitton, “Negroes’ Protest Spreads in South,” New York Times, February 13, 1960, 1, 6.

  • 20. On the Nashville sit-ins, see Paul Laprad, “Nashville: A Community Struggle,” in Sit-Ins: The Students Report, ed. James Peck (New York, NY: Congress of Racial Equality, 1960), 6–8; Morris, Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, 205–212; Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963 (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1988), 272–280; and David Halberstam, The Children (New York, NY: Random House, 1998), 25–92.

  • 21. David Halberstam, “A Good City Gone Ugly,” Reporter, March 31, 1960, 17–19, at 19.

  • 22. On the Atlanta student movement, the best source is Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), chaps. 6 and 7.

  • 23. “An Appeal for Human Rights,” Atlanta Constitution, March 9, 1960, 13.

  • 24. Howard Raines, My Soul is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South (New York, NY: Putnam, 1977), 86 (interview with Julian Bond).

  • 25. Pat Watters, “Headline Makers,” Atlanta Constitution, March 20, 1960, 2C.

  • 26. John Britton, “Students Bound Over to a Higher Court After Food Service Appeal,” Atlanta Daily World, March 16, 1960, 1; “77 Negroes Arrested Here As Cafeteria Sitdowns Start,” Atlanta Constitution, March 16, 1960, 1; and “Governor Pledges Aide if Needed,” Atlanta Constitution, March 16, 1960, 1.

  • 27. Ted Lippman, “No More Sitdowns Now, Students Say,” Atlanta Constitution, March 17, 1960, 1, 12; and Maurice C. Daniels, Saving the Soul of Georgia: Donald L. Hollowell and the Struggle for Civil Rights (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013), 107.

  • 28. Julius Duscha, “1200 Negroes March to Capitol, Pray, Sing Anthem in Alabama,” Washington Post, March 2, 1960, B6; and J. Mills Thornton III, Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), 113–114.

  • 29. “Violence Sweeps Dixie in Negro Sitdowns,” Boston Globe, February 28, 1960, 8.

  • 30. “Savannah Sitdowner Hit As Tension Flares,” Atlanta Constitution, April 17, 1960, 20A; “Blast Home of Sit-In Lawyer,” Chicago Defender, April 30, 1960, 12.

  • 31. “KKK on Rampage Against Sit-Ins,” Daily Defender, March 29, 1960, 3.

  • 32. Southern Regional Council, “A Follow-Up Report on the Student Protest Movement After Two Months,” North Carolina Council on Human Relations Records 4880, Folder 757, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

  • 33. On the limits of a commitment to nonviolence in the sit-in movement, see Martin Oppenheimer, The Sit-In Movement of 1960 (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1989) (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1963), 47; Ted Dienstfrey, “A Conference on the Sit-Ins,” Commentary 30 (June 1960): 524–528, at 526; and Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s, 2nd. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 19, 22–23.

  • 34. “Negroes Fight Back in the South,” New York Amsterdam News, February 16, 1960, 1.

  • 35. “Negroes Fight Back in the South.”

  • 36. “Race Brawl Erupts at Restaurant,” Atlanta Constitution, February 16, 1960, 2.

  • 37. Edward Rodman, “Portsmouth: A Lesson in Nonviolence,” in Sit-Ins: The Students Report, ed. James Peck (New York, NY: CORE, 1960), 4–6; “Lunch Counter Sitdown Erupts Into Racial Melee,” Atlanta Constitution, February 17, 1960, 1; and “500 are Dispersed at Racial Dispute,” New York Times, February 18, 1960, 14.

  • 38. Claude Sitton, “Chattanooga Quiet,” New York Times, February 26, 1960, 8; “Violence in Chattanooga,” Southern School News, March 1960, 1.

  • 39. Schmidt, Sit-Ins, chap. 4.

  • 40. “Negroes Throng Sitdown Trials,” New York Times, March 1, 1960, 20; “N.Y. Coeds Describe Sit-Down,” Amsterdam News, March 12, 1960, 26; and Halberstam, “Good City Gone Ugly,” 17–19.

  • 41. John Kirk, “Another Side of the Sit-Ins: Nonviolent Direct Action, the Courts, and the Constitution,” in From Sit-Ins to SNCC: The Student Movement in the 1960s, ed. Iwan Morgan and Philip Davies (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012), 23–40, at 26.

  • 42. Christopher W. Schmidt, “Divided by Law: The Sit-Ins and the Role of the Courts in the Civil Rights Movement,” Law and History Review 33 (2015): 93–149.

  • 43. “Eight Negroes Chose Jail in Sitdown Case,” Chicago Tribune, March 19, 1960, 12; “Tallahassee Sitdowners Convicted,” Atlanta Constitution, May 8, 1960, 12D; “Judge Convicts 11 in Sitdown,” Washington Post, May 8, 1960, B6; and Patricia Stephens, “Tallahassee: Through Jail to Freedom,” in Sit-Ins: The Students Report, ed. James Peck (New York, NY: CORE, 1960), 2–4.

  • 44. Thomas Gaither, “Orangeburg: Behind the Carolina Stockade,” in Peck, Sit-Ins, 9–11.

  • 45. Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae, 9, Garner v. Louisiana, Nos. 26, 27, 28, October Term, 1961, September 11, 1961.

  • 46. “Hundreds Seek to Quit Negro College That Expelled Demonstrators,” New York Times, April 1, 1960, 1, 25; Major Johns, “Baton Rouge: Higher Education—Southern Style,” in Peck, Sit-Ins, 11-13; and Adam Fairclough, Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915–1972 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 266–271.

  • 47. Elsie Carper, “Youths in Rally For Civil Rights,” Washington Post, June 23, 1960, B9.

  • 48. Wehr, “Sit-Down Protests,” 44; Doug McAdam, “Tactical Innovation and the Pace of Insurgency,” American Sociological Review 48 (1983): 735–754, at 744.

  • 49. “Children in Sit-In,” New York Times, June 18, 1960, 11; Oppenheimer, “Southern Student Movement,” 401.

  • 50. Merrill Proudfoot, Diary of a Sit-In (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962); and Cynthia Griggs Fleming, “White Lunch Counters and Black Consciousness: The Story of the Knoxville Sit-ins,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 49 (1990): 40–52.

  • 51. L. F. Palmer, “Uprising for Freedom,” Chicago Defender, March 22, 1960, 9.

  • 52. Halberstam, “Good City Gone Ugly,” 18.

  • 53. Martin Luther King Jr., “The Burning Truth in the South,” Progressive 24 (May 1960): 8.

  • 54. Major Johns, “Baton Rouge: Higher Education—Southern Style,” in Sit-Ins: The Students Report, 13.

  • 55. Louis E. Lomax, “The Negro Revolt Against ‘The Negro Leaders,’” Harper’s (June 1960): 41–48, at 48.

  • 56. Christopher W. Schmidt, “The Sit-Ins and the State Action Doctrine,” William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal 18 (2010): 767–829.

  • 57. See Schmidt, “Divided by Law”; Schmidt, Sit-Ins, chap. 3.

  • 58. McAdam, “Tactical Innovation and the Pace of Insurgency.”

  • 59. Oppenheimer, “The Southern Student Movement,” 399.

  • 60. Schmidt, “Divided by Law,” 127–129.

  • 61. “Cafe Push Spreads to Tennessee,” Atlanta Constitution, February 20, 1960, 2.

  • 62. Ben H. Bagdikian, “Negro Youth’s New March on Dixie,” Saturday Evening Post, September 8, 1962, 15–19, at 16.

  • 63. Morris, Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, 196–203.

  • 64. Morris, Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, 188–215; and Doug McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930–1970, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999), chap. 6.

  • 65. “Sit-In,” NBC White Paper, No. 2, aired on December 20, 1960, at 9:45 p.m.

  • 66. See Schmidt, Sit-Ins, chap. 3.

  • 67. Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 4.

  • 68. Ella Baker, “Bigger Than a Hamburger,” Southern Patriot 18 (June 1960): 4. See also Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 239–247.

  • 69. “Delegates to Youth Leadership Conference,” April 21, 1960; “142 Students Push Integration Drive,” Atlanta Constitution, April 18, 1960, 5; and Dienstfrey, “Conference on the Sit-Ins.”

  • 70. Claude Sitton, “Racial Problems Put to President,” New York Times, April 18, 1960, 21; and Helen Fuller, “Southern Students Take Over,” New Republic, May 2, 1960, 14–16.

  • 71. Claude Sitton, “Negro Criticizes N.A.A.C.P. Tactics,” New York Times, April 17, 1960, 32; James Lawson, “From a Lunch-Counter Stool,” April 1960, reprinted in August Meier, Elliott Rudwick, and Francis Broderick, eds., Black Protest Thought in the Twentieth Century, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971), 308–315.

  • 72. See Carson, In Struggle; and Wesley C. Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

  • 73. “Some Negroes Served,” New York Times, March 8, 1960, 23; “Freeze & Thaw,” Time, March 28, 1960, 26; “Galveston Becomes Second Texas City to Desegregate its Lunch Counters,” Washington Post, April 6, 1960, A14; and Laue, Direct Action and Desegregation, 77.

  • 74. “Bombing Rips House, Hosp. In Nashville,” Atlanta Daily World, April 20, 1960, 1; “Blast Home of Sit-In Lawyer,” Chicago Defender, April 20, 1960, 12. “Sit-In,” NBC White Paper; and Oppenheimer, Sit-In Movement, 124–130.

  • 75. “Negroes Win Dining Rights in Nashville,” Chicago Tribune, May 11, 1960, A1; Robert S. Bird, “Local Eating Going Well in Nashville,” New York Herald Tribune, May 12, 1960, 24; “The Nashville Story,” Chicago Tribune, May 13, 1960, 12; and “It Happened in Nashville,” Reporter, May 26, 1960, 2–4.

  • 76. Margaret Price, “Why Some Areas Solve ‘Sit-Ins,” Chicago Defender, July 2, 1960, 8.

  • 77. Editorial, “A Quiet Denouement,” Greensboro Daily News, July 27, 1960, A8.

  • 78. “Sit-Ins Victorious Where They Began,” New York Times, July 26, 1960, 1, 19.

  • 79. See Schmidt, Sit-Ins, chap. 5.

  • 80. Schmidt, “The Sit-Ins and the State Action Doctrine.”

  • 81. Earl Lawrence Carl, “Reflections on the ‘Sit-Ins,’” Cornell Law Quarterly 46 (1961): 444–457, at 455.

  • 82. Jack Greenberg, “The Supreme Court, Civil Rights and Civil Dissonance,” Yale Law Journal 77 (1968): 1520–1544, at 1532.

  • 83. Schmidt, Sit-Ins. Prior to the publication of this book, the only book-length accounts of the sit-ins were two sociology dissertations written in the 1960s: Martin Oppenheimer, “Genesis of the Southern Negro Student Movement” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1963), reprinted as The Sit-In Movement of 1960 (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1989); and James H. Laue, “Direct Action and Desegregation, 1960–1962: Toward a Theory of Rationalization of Protest” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 1965; reprint Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1989).

  • 84. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights, chap. 3.

  • 85. Brown-Nagin Courage to Dissent, chaps. 6 and 7.

  • 86. Halberstam, The Children.

  • 87. Kirk, “Another Side of the Sit-Ins”; and John A. Kirk, Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1940–1970 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002), 143–146.

  • 88. Carson, In Struggle, chap. 1; Meier and Rudwick, CORE, chap. 2. See also Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart, chap. 1; and Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), chap. 2.

  • 89. Thomas Bynum, NAACP Youth and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1936–1965 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2013), 95–106.

  • 90. Morris, Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, 188–215. Additional analysis of the organizational dynamics of the sit-ins can be found in Lewis M. Killian, “Organization, Rationality and Spontaneity in the Civil Rights Movement,” American Sociological Review 49 (1984): 770–783; McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, chap. 6; Kenneth T. Andrews and Michael Biggs, “The Dynamics of Protest Diffusion: Movement Organizations, Social Networks, and News Media in the 1960 Sit-Ins,” American Sociological Review 71 (2006): 752–777; and Michael Biggs, “Who Joined the Sit-ins and Why: Southern Black Students in the Early 1960s,” Mobilization: An International Journal 11 (2006): 321–336.

  • 91. Polletta, It Was Like a Fever, chap. 2.

  • 92. See, for example, Gerald N. Rosenberg, The Hollow Hope: Can Courts Bring About Social Change? (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 39–169; and Michael W. McCann, “Reform Litigation on Trial,” Law & Social Inquiry 17 (1992): 715–743.

  • 93. Michael J. Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), chap. 7.

  • 94. Schmidt, “Divided by Law”; Schmidt, Sit-Ins.

  • 95. George Lewis, “‘Complicated Hospitality’: The Impact of the Sit-Ins on the Ideology of Southern Segregationists,” in From Sit-Ins to SNCC, 41–57; Clive Webb, “Breaching the Wall of Resistance: White Southern Reactions to the Sit-Ins,” in From Sit-Ins to SNCC, 58–80; and Schmidt, Sit-Ins, chap. 4.

  • 96. Gavin Wright, Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), chap. 3.

  • 97. Peck, Sit-Ins. See also Diane Nash, “Inside the Sit-ins and Freedom Rides: Testimony of a Southern Student,” in The New Negro, ed. Mathew H. Ahmann (Notre Dame, IN: Fides, 1961), 43–62.

  • 98. Published collections include Raines, My Soul is Rested; Henry Hampton and Steve Fraser, Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s (New York, NY: Bantam, 1990). Recordings and transcripts can be found at Oral Histories: Southern Oral History Program, Center for the Study of the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; William Henry Chafe Oral History Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University; Greensboro Voices/Greensboro Public Library Oral History Project; Bluford Library, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. See also John Lewis with Michael D’Orso, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1998).

  • 99. See, for example, Wehr, “Sit-Down Protests”; Oppenheimer, Sit-In Movement; Laue, Direct Action and Desegregation; and Fredric Solomon and Jacob R. Fishman, “Action and Identity Formation in the First Student Demonstration,” Journal of Social Issues 20 (April 1964): 36–45.

  • 100. SNCC Papers, 1959–1972 (microfilm) (Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America). See also the volumes of the SNCC newsletter, The Student Voice, which began in June 1960.

  • 101. Congress of Racial Equality Papers, 1941–1967 (microfilm) (Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America).

  • 102. NAACP Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Manuscript Division; NAACP Papers, (digitized), ProQuest.

  • 103. Southern Regional Council Papers, 1944–1968 (microfilm) (Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America). Some of the SRC reports are online.

  • 104. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. 5, ed. Clayborne Carson (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992).

  • 105. Governor’s Papers: Luther Hartwell Hodges, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, NC.

  • 106. Clarence Lee Harris Papers, Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, UNCG University Libraries, Greensboro, NC.

  • 107. On press coverage of the civil rights movement, see Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation (New York, NY: Knopf, 2006).

  • 108. Many Greensboro Daily News articles relating to the sit-ins are available online at Civil Rights Greensboro, Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, UNCG University Libraries, Greensboro, NC.

  • 109. See, for example, Michael Walzer, “A Cup of Coffee and a Seat,” Dissent 7 (Spring 1960): 111–120; Dienstfrey, “Conference on the Sit-Ins”; Louis E. Lomax, “The Negro Revolt Against ‘The Negro Leaders’”; Howard Zinn, “Finishing School for Pickets,” Nation, August 6, 1960, 72; and Nat Hentoff, “A Peaceful Army,” Commonweal, June 10, 1960, 275–278.

  • 110. “Sit-In,” NBC White Paper.