Segregated Lunch Counters

After the successful outcome of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, its leader, Martin Luther King wrote Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958). The book described what happened at Montgomery and explained King's views on non-violence and direct action and was to have a considerable influence on the civil rights movement.

In Greensboro, North Carolina, a small group of black students read the book and decided to take action themselves. On 1st February, 1960, Franklin McCain, David Richmond, Joseph McNeil and Ezell Blair, started a student sit-in at the restaurant of their local Woolworth's store which had a policy of not serving black people. In the days that followed they were joined by other black students until they occupied all the seats in the restaurant. The students were often physically assaulted, but following the teachings of King they did not hit back.

Later that month about forty college students staged a sit-in at Woolworth's lunch counter in Nashville, Tennessee. Stokely Carmichael later recalled: "When I first heard about the Negroes sitting in at lunch counters down South, I thought they were just a bunch of publicity hounds. But one night when I saw those young kids on TV, getting back up on the lunch counter stools after being knocked off them, sugar in their eyes, ketchup in their hair - well, something happened to me. Suddenly I was burning."

Franklin McCain later recalled: "On the day that I sat at that counter I had the most tremendous feeling of elation and celebration. I felt that in this life nothing else mattered. I felt like one of those wise men who sits cross-legged and cross-armed and has reached a natural high. Nothing else has ever come close. Not the birth of my first son nor my marriage. People go through their whole lives and they don't get that to happen to them. And here it was being visited on me as a 17-year-old. It was wonderful but it was sad also, because I know that I will never have that again. I'm just sorry it was when I was 17."

As Raymond Arsenault, the author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006) pointed out: "Unlike the scattered and short-term sit-ins in the 1950s, the Woolworth's lunch counter sit-in that began on February 1, 1960, drew the rapt attention of national civil rights leaders, especially after the scale of the protest widened beyond anyone's expectations. As the number of participants multiplied, from twenty-nine on the second day to more than three hundred on the fifth." On 16th May, 1960, Matthew Walker, Peggy Alexander, Diane Nash and Stanley Hemphill became the first blacks to eat lunch at the Post House Restraurant in Nashville.

Segregated Lunch Counters
Following a series of sit-ins, four student activists became the first blacks to eat lunch
at the Post House Restraurant in Nashville. From left to right: Matthew Walker, Peggy
Alexander, Diane Nash and Stanley Hemphill. (16th May, 1960)

This non-violent strategy was adopted by black students all over the Deep South. Within six months these sit-ins had ended restaurant and lunch-counter segregation in twenty-six southern cities. Student sit-ins were also successful against segregation in public parks, swimming pools, theaters, churches, libraries, museums and beaches.

In October, 1960, students involved in these sit-ins held a conference and established the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The organization adopted the Gandhian theory of nonviolent direct action. This included participation in the Freedom Rides during 1961. Leading figures in the organization included Robert Moses, James Lawson, Marion Barry, Charles McDew, James Forman and John Lewis.

The campaign to end segregation at lunch counters in Birmingham, Alabama, was less successful. In the spring of 1963 police turned dogs and fire hoses on the demonstrators. King and large number of his supporters, including schoolchildren, were arrested and jailed.

During the 1960 presidential election campaign John F. Kennedy argued for a new Civil Rights Act. After the election it was discovered that over 70 per cent of the African American vote went to Kennedy. However, during the first two years of his presidency, Kennedy failed to put forward his promised legislation.

Kennedy's Civil Rights bill was brought before Congress in 1963 and in a speech on television on 11th June, Kennedy pointed out that: "The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day; one third as much chance of completing college; one third as much chance of becoming a professional man; twice as much chance of becoming unemployed; about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year; a life expectancy which is seven years shorter; and the prospects of earning only half as much."

In an attempt to persuade Congress to pass Kennedy's proposed legislation, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized the famous March on Washington. On 28th August, 1963, more than 200,000 people marched peacefully to the Lincoln Memorial to demand equal justice for all citizens under the law. At the end of the march Martin Luther King made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Kennedy's Civil Rights bill was still being debated by Congress when he was assassinated in November, 1963. The new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had a poor record on civil rights issues, took up the cause. Using his considerable influence in Congress, Johnson was able to get the legislation passed.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act made racial discrimination in public places, such as theaters, restaurants and hotels, illegal. It also required employers to provide equal employment opportunities. Projects involving federal funds could now be cut off if there was evidence of discriminated based on colour, race or national origin.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Franklin McCain was one of the four black teenagers who took part in the original sit-in in Greensboro Woolworths on 1st February, 1960. He was interviewed by Howell Raines for his book My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered (1977)

The planning process was on a Sunday night, I remember it quite well. I think it was Joseph McNeil who said, "It's time that we take some action now. We've been getting together, and we've been, up to this point, still like most people we've talked about for the past few weeks or so - that is, people who talk a lot but, in fact, make very little action." After selecting the technique, then we said, "Let's go down and just ask for service." It certainly wasn't titled a "sit-in" or "sit-down" at that time. "Let's just go down to Woolworth's tomorrow and ask for service, and the tactic is going to be simply this: we'll just stay there." We never anticipated being served, certainly, the first day anyway. "We'll stay until we get served." And I think Ezell Blair said, "Well, you know that might be weeks, that might be months, that might be never." And I think it was the consensus of the group, we said, "Well, that's just the chance we'll have to take."

Once getting there we did make purchases of school supplies and took the patience and time to get receipts for our purchases, and Joseph McNeil and myself went over to the counter and asked to be served coffee and doughnuts. As anticipated, the reply was, "I'm sorry, we don't serve you here." And of course we said, "We just beg to disagree with you. We've in fact already been served." The attendant or waitress was a little bit dumbfounded, just didn't know what to say under circumstances like that. And we said, "We wonder why you'd invite us in to serve us at one counter and deny service at another. If this is a private club or private concern, then we believe you ought to sell membership cards." That didn't go over too well, simply because I don't really think she understood what we were talking about, and for the second reason, she had no logical response to a statement like that.

At that point there was a policeman who had walked in off the street, who was pacing the aisle behind us, where we were seated, with his club in his hand, just sort of knocking it in his hand, and just looking mean and red and a little bit upset and a little bit disgusted. And you had the feeling that he didn't know what the hell to do. You had the feeling that this is the first time that this big bad man with the gun and the club has been pushed in a corner, and he's got absolutely no defense, and the thing that's killing him more than anything else - he doesn't know what he can or what he cannot do. He's defenseless. Usually his defense is offense, and we've provoked him, yes, but we haven't provoked him outwardly enough for him to resort to violence. And I think this is just killing him; you can see it all over him.

(2) Franklin McCain was interviewed by Gary Younge for his book, No Place Like Home (2000)

On the day that I sat at that counter I had the most tremendous feeling of elation and celebration. I felt that in this life nothing else mattered. I felt like one of those wise men who sits cross-legged and cross-armed and has reached a natural high. Nothing else has ever come close. Not the birth of my first son nor my marriage. People go through their whole lives and they don't get that to happen to them. And here it was being visited on me as a 17-year-old. It was wonderful but it was sad also, because I know that I will never have that again. I'm just sorry it was when I was 17.

I was brought up with a major myth. I was told that if I worked hard, believed in the constitution, the 10 commandments and the bill of rights, and got a good education, I would be successful. For a long time, I held it against my parents and my grandparents as well. I felt they had lied to me and I felt suicidal. I felt that if that is what this life was all about then it wasn't worth it. There seemed no prospect for dignity or respect as a young black man.

So we decided to do something. When we sat down, and the waitress refused to take our orders, there was a policeman behind us slapping his night-stick on his hand. I thought, I guess this is it. But then it occurred to me the policeman really didn't know what he was doing, and I must say I was relieved.

Some way through, an old white lady, who must have been 75 or 85, came over and put her hands on my shoulders and said: "Boys I am so proud of you. You should have done this 10 years ago." That is exactly the sort of person you didn't expect to hear anything from.

It was only 15 or 20 years later that I learnt to forgive them and understand them. I was threatening their livelihood. And it was around that time I realised that my parents weren't naive in the cruel lie that they had told me. They lied to me be cause they loved me.

(3) Stokely Carmichael, interviewed by Gordon Parks, Life Magazine (1967)

When I first heard about the Negroes sitting in at lunch counters down South, I thought they were just a bunch of publicity hounds. But one night when I saw those young kids on TV, getting back up on the lunch counter stools after being knocked off them, sugar in their eyes, ketchup in their hair - well, something happened to me. Suddenly I was burning.