The Civil Rights movement coalesced in the 1950s and turned into a protest movement with clear goals, a well-structured leadership, and mobilized activists. Its greatest challenges came in this period, but it made possible the ground-shifting legal changes of the 1960s. Here are the main events that occurred during this period.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
Brown v. Board was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional. In doing so, the court overturned the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision from 1896, which had legalized and justified such segregation, (although in the area of public transportation), on the merits of “separate but equal.” Brown was a class-action suit named after Oliver Brown, a parent chosen to head the case in part because he was a solid family man with a respectable history of work and service in the community as an assistant pastor at his church. Thirteen parents were involved in the suit, each of them having been rebuffed in their attempts to enroll their children in the closest neighborhood schools for the fall 1951 term. Each had instead been directed to segregated schools. The Brown case had evolved out of a myriad of segregation cases following WWII, and combined 5 other cases that had all been sponsored by the NAACP.
The Kansas case, filed in 1951, was unique in that the plaintiffs made no contention that separate schools in Topeka had unequal facilities, curriculum, or staff. Instead, Thurgood Marshall argued that separate but equal in public education had a detrimental effect of Negro children. In fact, the District Court had agreed with this argument but they had declined to rule in favor of Brown on the grounds that there was no state-sponsored inequality in the services offered. The Supreme Court heard Brown v. Board of Education for the first time in December 1952, but was planning to re-hear the case in the October session of 1953, with special attention given to whether the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibited segregated public schools. But then, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson died just days before the fall session. The person chosen to become the new Chief Justice was not even on the court at the time. He was the Governor of California, Earl Warren.
The appointment to the Supreme Court of California Governor Warren by Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower did not seem a monumental moment at the time. Warren was a unifying figure in the Republican Party. First elected California’s governor in 1942, he had won all of the major party’s primaries for the Governorship in 1946, and was reelected that year with 90% of the vote. In 1948 he was the #2 on the national ticket with Thomas Dewey, losing in a surprising result to Truman. He was still popular in 1952, though Richard Nixon had outmaneuvered him to create the winning ticket with Eisenhower that year. President Eisenhower picked Warren to be the new Chief Justice because of his moderate progressive politics and because of his prior legal experience as a district attorney for Alameda County, California and as Attorney General of California. No one, least of all Eisenhower, anticipated the era of liberal activism that was about to occur, or the incredible ramifications it would have on the individual rights of Americans. The unanimous decision in Brown was handed down on May 17, 1954.
In forming and rendering its opinion, the Supreme Court was influenced by recent scholarly work. One was “The Race Question,” a 1950 statement published by The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a specialized agency of the UN. Signed by some of the leading experts in the fields of psychology, biology, cultural anthropology, and ethnology, the statement rejected race theories and pseudo-science used to justify the Holocaust, which in turn had been heavily influenced by the early 20th Century Eugenics movement (largely created in and exported from the United States). The Court’s opinion also referenced An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). This 1,500-page study of race relations, funded by the Carnegie Foundation and authored by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal (chosen because it thought that, as a non-American, Myrdal could offer a more unbiased opinion) painstakingly detailed the obstacles to full participation in that African-Americans faced in 1940s American society.
Additionally, the court considered research performed by educational psychologists Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark, especially the “doll test” studies, which grew out of Mamie Clark’s master’s degree thesis. Their studies found contrasts among children attending segregated schools in Washington, D.C. versus those in integrated schools in New York. They found that Black children often preferred to play with white dolls over black ones. When asked to fill in a human figure with the color of their own skin, the children frequently chose a lighter shade than was accurate. Most famously, the children assigned “good” and “pretty” attributes to the white dolls, and “bad” and “ugly” attributes to the black dolls. The Clarks testified as expert witnesses in one of the cases that was combined with the Brown case. The Supreme Court viewed their work as evidence that the children had internalized racism caused by being discriminated against and stigmatized by segregation. The court wrote:
Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system… We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
President Eisenhower’s Response
President Eisenhower showed little interest in racial issues during his presidential campaign, or during his first years in office. He did connect the issue with national security by pointing out that the Communists around the world were using racial discrimination in the U.S. as anti-American propaganda, but he did little to impact the day-to-day lives of black American. Frustration with the administration was even expressed by black musicians. Blues guitarist J.B. Lenoir, for example, recorded “Eisenhower Blues” in 1954, in which he laments the lack of social gain or economic opportunity afforded blacks. As far as action goes, the day after the Brown v. Board decision was handed down, Eisenhower told District of Columbia officials to make Washington a model for the rest of the country in integrating black and white public school children. On January 15, 1955 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10590, establishing the President’s Committee on Government Policy to enforce a nondiscrimination policy in Federal employment.
Defiant Pioneer, Claudette Colvin
On March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was sitting on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, thinking about a paper she had written at school about a law that forbade blacks from trying on white clothes in department stores, sitting in the center bus section where blacks were allowed to sit, provided there were no white people needing seats. When a white woman got on the bus and was left standing, the driver ordered her and two other black passengers to get up. Colvin refused. She was removed from the bus by two police officers and arrested for violating the segregation law, and for assault. The legal case that ensued combined complaints from Colvin and 3 other black women who had been abused Alabama’s segregation law and the Montgomery bus system. Aurelia Browder’s name was used as it was thought that Colvin, who after her arrest conceived a child with a married, older man (she was thus unmarried and pregnant), and who had been charged with assault, should not be directly associated with the case. Browder v. Gayle would be the basis for overturning Alabama’s public transportation segregation law in 1956.
Following the Brown v. Board decision, schools soon requested some form of relief regarding the task of desegregation. On May 31, 1955, the Supreme Court ruled in what became known as “Brown II,” that the task of carrying out school desegregation was delegated to district courts, with orders that desegregation occur “with all deliberate speed.” Many Southern states and school districts interpreted “Brown II” as legal justification for resisting, delaying, and avoiding significant integration for years—and in some cases for a decade or more—using such tactics as closing down school systems, using state money to finance segregated “private” schools, and “token” integration where a few carefully selected black children were admitted to former white-only schools but the vast majority remained in under-funded, unequal black schools.
Autherine Lucy, 1955-1956
On June 29, 1955, the Supreme Court ruled in Lucy v. Adams, that black citizens could not be refused admission to the University of Alabama solely on account of their race or color. Autherine Lucy subsequently became the first black student to attend the University of Alabama, in 1956.
She enrolled on February 3, 1956. On the third day of classes, a hostile mob assembled to prevent Lucy from attending classes. A thousand rioters attempted to storm the car in which she rode to class with the Dean of Women. When the campus president’s home was attacked, the administration suspended Lucy, just three days after admitting her. Lucy and her attorneys filed suit to have the suspension overturned. The University then expelled her on the grounds that her lawsuit had slandered the university. The University of Alabama finally overturned her expulsion in 1980.
Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, 1955
In November 1955, the Warren Court ruled in Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, that the non-discrimination language of the 1887 Interstate Commerce Act prohibited segregation of black passengers in buses traveling across state lines. The case had grown out the frustrations felt by a Women’s Army Corps (WAC) private who experienced this form of discrimination while traveling in uniform in the service of her country. It was the first time the court applied the Brown v. Board logic to the field of interstate transportation. The ruling was issued on November 7, but was made public just one week before Rosa Parks refused to give up a bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama.
Southern Violence, 1955
Despite these legal gains, or perhaps in part because of them, 1955 was a notable year for southern violence against African Americans. On May 7, NAACP activist Reverend George W. Lee was hit with three shotgun blasts while sitting in his car in Belzoni, Mississippi. Lee was a successful businessman and was able to pay the poll taxes imposed on poor blacks to prohibit voting, and he worked hard to register other black voters. He had refused to give in to intimidation and threats of violence.
The sheriff investigating his murder tried to claim that the metal found in Lee’s mouth from buckshot was just dental fillings and that Lee had died from a car accident. The U.S. Attorney General ordered the Justice Department to investigate. Lee’s wife insisted on an open-casket funeral, and a photo of his mutilated corpse was published in the Chicago Defender. No charges were ever brought.
On August 13, 1955, civil rights activist Lamar Smith was shot to death in broad daylight at close range on the lawn of the Lincoln County courthouse in Brookhaven, Mississippi. Smith was a WWI veteran and a voter registration activist. Reports indicated that numerous white witnesses, including the local sheriff, saw a white man covered with blood leaving the scene. Three men were arrested, but no white witnesses would come forward, and all charges were dropped.
The Murder of Emmett Till, 1955
On August 28, 1955, one of the most famous events in the early days of the civil rights movements occurred, when 14-year-old Emmett Till, from Chicago, was murdered in Mississippi where he had gone on vacation to visit relatives. Till and others went to buy candy at a small grocery store whose main clientele were area blacks. Outside the store, Till showed a photograph of a white girl to some other teenagers and boasted that he had “made time” with her. The incredulous youths, brought up in the rigid social caste that Till was unaware of, dared him to speak to the female proprietor in the grocery store. Till entered the store and allegedly spoke or whistled flirtatiously to 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant. Exactly what he said and did remains disputed. He may have whistled suggestively at her. If he whistled, he may have been trying to overcome a speech impediment before asking for bubble gum, a technique he sometimes employed, according to his mother. Carolyn Bryant later asserted that Till had grabbed her at the waist and asked her for a date, and that he had used “unprintable” words. Whatever happened, Bryant was upset enough that she ran outside to retrieve a pistol kept under the seat of a car. The teenagers saw this and left immediately. Bryant told others what had happened, and the story spread quickly. Carolyn’s husband Roy returned from a trip a few days later. Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam came to the house where Till was staying. They asked for him, told him to get dressed and come outside, and then told the other family members to go back to sleep. Till was never seen alive again. When his body was found in the Tallahatchie River three days later, it was apparent that the men had beat him and gouged out one of his eyes. Then they shot him in the head, tied a cotton gin fan to him with barbed wire so as to weigh him down, and tossed him in the river.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted that the body be sent back to Chicago, and then further insisted on an open casket funeral. She wanted the world to see what they had done to her boy. Tens of thousands of people came to the viewing, and thousands more attended his funeral. Photographs of Emmett’s corpse were published in Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender, and were circulated around the country. They drew an intense public reaction. After about an hour of deliberation, the jury acquitted Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, partly because of issues involving positive identification of the body. A year later, protected by double jeopardy, they admitted to killing him in an interview with Look magazine, for which they were paid several thousand dollars.
In the interview, the men told Look that their intention was to “just whip him… and scare some sense into him.” But numerous attempts to scare Till proved fruitless. Milam said, “Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers — in their place — I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you — just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.'”
Perhaps no episode was a catalyst for the passion that would engage the civil rights movement as the murder of Emmett Till. Even white Americans who were indifferent to the plight of African Americans were appalled by the brutality of this particular murder. Some black Americans who would soon become instrumental in the struggle ahead, like Anne Moody, recount how the murder of Emmett Till made them realize for the first time that they could be killed just for being black.The Emmett Till story was told in a 1955 recording by the Ramparts, written by A.C. Bilbrew.
The murders of George W. Lee, Lamar Smith, and Emmett Till were spotlighted in the 1955 NAACP pamphlet, “M is for Mississippi and Murder”.
Rosa Parks & the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-1956
On December 1, 1955, 42-year-old Rosa Parks, a seamstress in a Montgomery, Alabama department store, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man at the order of driver James Blake. Parks’ action was one in a series of defiance by black women against public transportation segregation laws. In circumstances similar to those involving Claudette Colvin, Parks and four others were ordered to move from their seats when the driver moved the color line toward the rear of the bus in order to accommodate white passengers. Three of the riders complied, Parks did not. After Blake confirmed that Parks would not give up her seat, he called the police. Parks was arrested and charged with violating the segregation law. Four days later, Parks was tried for violating that law, and for disorderly conduct. She was found guilty and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs. Parks appealed her conviction. Immediately following her arrest, Parks became the catalyst for the boycott of the Montgomery buses. Parks, a well-respected, humble person, was the symbol local activists had been waiting for upon which to take a moral stand. After an initial one-day boycott ended successfully, a group of 16 to 18 people gathered at Reverend L. Roy Bennett’s Mt. Zion AME Zion Church to discuss boycott strategies. They created an organization to lead the boycott effort, called the Montgomery Improvement Association, and elected as its president the relatively unknown minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted for 381 days.
The majority of the bus system’s patrons were black, many of them women who rode the buses on their way to go cook and clean for affluent whites. The boycott did significant damage to the finances of the bus transit company. Some segregationists retaliated with terrorism. Black churches were burned and bombed. Martin Luther King’s home was bombed on January 30, 1956. The boycott ended not because of the legal case brought by Parks, but because of the District Court’s ruling in the Browder v. Gayle case. On November 13 the Supreme Court upheld that decision, and the court order to desegregate arrived in Montgomery on December 20. The bus boycott ended the next day. However, more violence followed, as snipers fired into buses and more churches were bombed. King’s home was bombed a second time.
1956 was a presidential election year. By February, the segregation issue was dominating Democratic Party politics. On February 24, Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., declared a policy of “massive resistance” in Virginia. Byrd ran a political machine that controlled state politics. He stated, “If we can organize the Southern States for massive resistance to this order I think that in time the rest of the country will realize that racial integration is not going to be accepted in the South.” New Virginia laws were designed to punish state schools that integrated and to provide funding for white students to be able to attend private, segregated schools. “Massive Resistance” started a series of battles over school integration that ultimately led to the courts forcing integrated schools to remain open and funded in 1959-1960. “Massive Resistance,” once declared, was immediately followed by the Southern Manifesto against school integration, created and signed by members of the Congressional delegations of Southern states, including 19 senators and 81 members of the House of Representatives, notably the entire delegations of the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia. The Southern Manifesto was released to the press on March 12, 1956.
Mississippi went even further by creating the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission; its objective to “protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi, and her sister states” from “federal encroachment.” The Commission attempted to undermine the civil rights movement within the state by covert means. It planted informants, informed the police about planned marches and boycotts, and encouraged police harassment of African Americans who were part of, or cooperated with civil rights groups, especially those pushing voter registration.
At the federal level, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered the agency to begin the COINTELPRO program to investigate and disrupt “dissident” groups within the United States. FBI records show that 85% of COINTELPRO resources were used to target so-called “subversive” groups, including civil rights groups and leaders (MLK included).
African Americans in the South formed their own groups in order to project an organized front. In June 1956 the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) was formed in Birmingham, Alabama, with Bethel Baptist Church pastor Fred Shuttlesworth it president. The following January the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was named chairman of this organization, operating out of Atlanta, which expanded the earlier goal of targeting discrimination in busing law to ending all forms of discrimination. The main task of SCLC was to gain footholds in the black churches and communities across the South, who were often reluctant to risk repression and violence from whites. Retaliation often involved the targeting of church leaders, arson, and bombings. Some churches were also against the idea that churches should engage in social activism.
The SCLC would play a leading role in the civil rights movement, especially in the early 1960s. The Bethel Baptist Church was bombed by white terrorists 3 times during the civil rights movement; on December 25, 1956, on June 29, 1958, and on December 14, 1962. Alabama used state law to specifically target King. In 1960, MLK was indicted in Alabama on tax evasion charges. He was the only person ever prosecuted under the state’s income tax perjury statute. King was acquitted by an all-white jury due to the sheer tenacity and legal brilliance of his lawyer, William Robert Ming. A “reluctantly admiring” Alabama lawyer was quoted as saying, “Negro or not, he is a master of the law.” The trial was a turning point for King, causing him to reflect on how “justice” might look in the South if all blacks had access to such competent legal counsel.
In 1957 the SCLC gave its support to the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom rally, held at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on May 17. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the last speaker and it was the first time he addressed a national audience. King spoke in front of about 25,000 participants, which was the largest non-violent demonstration for civil rights up to that time. King’s speech has been named the “Give Us the Ballot” speech; it was a call for voting rights for African Americans on moral grounds. King also urged participants to use only non-violent resistance.
The Little Rock Integration Crisis, 1957
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision, the NAACP undertook to register black students at previously all-white schools in Southern cities. In Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas, the school board agreed to comply with the Brown ruling. Their plan of gradual integration was approved on May 24, 1955, to be implemented during the fall of 1957. By that time, the NAACP had registered nine black students, selected for their exemplary grades and attendance, at Little Rock Central High, . They came to be nicknamed, the “Little Rock Nine.” On September 4, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus exercised his authority to deploy the state National Guard to support segregationist protestors who were physically blocking access to the school. One student, Elizabeth Eckford, became separated from the group when she tried to approach a bus stop through a white mob, who surrounded her and threatened to lynch her. When she reached the bus stop she was visibly distraught. A reporter, Ben Fine, sat down next to her to comfort and protect her. They were joined by a white woman named Grace Lorch. Images of American soldiers in uniform blocking nine black children from attending high school brought national attention to the crisis.
President Eisenhower attempted to de-escalate the situation and summoned Governor Faubus to the White House. They met on September 14. The President warned the governor not to interfere in the Supreme Court’s ruling. On September 20, a judge ordered that the National Guard troops be removed and replaced by police, who would attempt to escort the students inside on the 23rd. On that day an angry mob of more than 1,000 whites protested in front of Central High School, while the nine black children were escorted inside. A number of white students, including a female named Sammy Dean Parker, who had been part of the mob threatening Elizabeth Eckford on the 4th, jumped out of windows to avoid contact with the black students.
The Little Rock police couldn’t control the mob and, fearing for their safety, removed the nine children from the school. Three black journalists covering the story were first harassed and then physically attacked and chased by the mob. They finally ran to safety in a black section of town. President Eisenhower called the rioting “disgraceful” and the next day, sent the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army to Little Rock. He used his executive power to federalize the entire10,000 member Arkansas National Guard, taking power away from Faubus. The 101st took up positions at the school, and the nine students successfully entered the building the following day, September 25. For the rest of the school year, the “nine” endured physical and verbal abuse at the hands of white students, who were punished only if their behavior was both egregious, and witnessed by an adult. One student, Minnejean Brown, resisted the bullying and was suspended several times. She subsequently transferred to a school in New York City.
A few white students, including Sammy Dean Parker, were disciplined for distributing cards at school the next day that read, “One down, Eight to go.” Parker was suspended in February 1958 when she and her mother “viscously and physically attacked” (according to the Natioal Guard report), the school’s assistant principal at an evening conference with the superintendent and other school officials. The family sued and Parker was re-admitted a month later after promising to be good.
The following year, Governor Faubus undertook a series of legal and political maneuvers in an attempt to maintain de facto segregation. His plan closed all public schools and attempted to lease them to private entities, who would continue to educate students in segregated environments.
The plan failed, in part as a result of the Cooper v. Aaron Supreme Court decision (discussed below), but resulted in the “the Lost Year,” in which education in Little Rock never took place. When the dust cleared, the integrated schools re-opened for the fall 1959 year, but black students bore the brunt of the frustration felt by white students and their parents.
The iconic photograph from the event, taken by Will Counts, depicts the moment Eckford became separated, with an angry mob barking at her heals (see above). The photograph was named by the Associated Press as one of the top 100 photographs of the 20th Century. The student seen taunting Eckford directly behind her was identified as Hazel Massery. Massery was one of the first whites associated with the event to express remorse for her behavior. In 1997, Eckford and Massery posed together for photographer Will Counts outside Central High School for the 40th anniversary of the event. The two struck up a friendship which, in the years since, has been a complicated one.
President Eisenhower and Civil Rights Legislation
1957 was a turning point for President Eisenhower on the race issue. In addition to the leadership shown during the Little Rock crisis, Eisenhower also proposed to Congress the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction. In January, Martin Luther King, Jr. had written to the President, urging him to assume leadership of the civil rights cause. Eisenhower expressed skepticism of what another speech could do, and King followed up with another telegram in February, expressing “a profound disappointment to the millions of Americans of goodwill, north and south, who earnestly are looking to you for leadership and guidance in this period of inevitable social change.” King then tried to get a meeting with Eisenhower, but by that time the president had submitted his civil rights bill to congress, and the President was advised to avoid the political scrutiny that would accompany a meeting with the young civil rights leader.
King was directed instead to meet with the Vice President. Nixon and King met for two hours, and Nixon came away impressed enough to say that the President would enjoy talking with him. When Eisenhower’s bill came up for final vote, segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina staged the longest filibuster in history, at 24 hours and 18 minutes, to delay the legislation. Thurmond read every state’s election laws, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, George Washington’s Farewell Address, and his mother’s recipe for biscuits. The bill passed the House 270-97, and the Senate 60-15. Eisenhower signed it on September 9, 1957. The goal of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 had been to ensure voting rights for African Americans. The bill passed only through the skillful guidance of Democratic Senate leader Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-TX), and because it was drastically modified from its original form to mollify enough of Johnson’s fellow Southerners. Black voting numbers actually decreased in the South from 1957 to 1960. The Act was significant, however, because it established the Civil Rights Division within the Justice Department, increasing investigative manpower.
In 1960, Eisenhower signed another Civil Rights Act, a weak bill that established federal inspection of local voter registration polls and introduced penalties for obstructing attempts at registering or voting. This bill too was delayed, this time by a coordinated filibuster that lasted over 43 hours and took up a total of more than 125 hours. By this time the 1960 election was looming, and after the U-2 shoot down crisis in August, the outgoing President had expended his political capital.
The last two years of the decade were also notable for further recognition of civil rights by the U.S. Supreme Court. In NAACP v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that the NAACP was not required to release membership lists to continue operating in the state. In Cooper v. Aaron, the court ruled that the states were bound by the Court’s decisions, and could not choose to ignore them.
As the civil rights movement grew, it expanded into other parts of the South, to the West, and into the minds and hearts of America’s black youth. Individuals and small groups began to organize and to take on integration in local businesses, store-by-store. 1958 saw the beginning of the form of resistance called the sit-in; a non-violent occupation of a place. The first organized lunch-counter sit-in for the purpose of integrating segregated establishments began in July 1958, in Wichita, Kansas. The protest targeted a drug store in the old Rexall chain. By early August the drugstore was integrated. An NAACP Youth Council-led sit-in occurred at the Katz Drug Store lunch counter in Oklahoma City. Over the next fear years, the group, led by Clara Luper, successfully integrated all of Oklahoma City’s eating establishments.
The Greensboro Four
On February 1, 1960, four freshman students from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina sat down at a “white’s only” lunch counter inside a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and ordered coffee. They were refused, and the manager asked them to leave. The four men stayed at the counter until the store closed. The next day, more than 20 black students accompanied the men as they returned to the store, and joined in the sit-in. They read books, ignored heckling by white patrons, and were again refused service. This second day of peaceful demonstrations was covered by reporters, and on the 3rd day more than 60 people came to the store. Woolworth’s national headquarters issued a statement saying that the company would “abide by local custom” and would maintain its segregated policy. On the 4th day, more than 300 people took part, so many that they split the protest between Woolworth’s and the lunch counter inside Greensboro’s Kress store. The “Greensboro Four,” while not the first to use the sit-in, sparked the movement into something larger. Within a weak there were sit-ins all across North Carolina. The peaceful protests soon spread to Virginia and Tennessee. Tensions in Greensboro grew, but the students then began a boycott of stores that had segregated lunch counters. Lunch sales at these establishments dropped by a third, forcing the store owners to abandon their segregation policies. Although violence did occur in some instances, the majority of these transitions occurred peacefully. Also during this time, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed in Raleigh, North Carolina. This group of young men and women would have a significant impact on the civil rights movement in the coming years.
In October 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr. and fifty others were arrested at a sit-in at Atlanta’s Rich’s Department Store. On probation for earlier infractions, King’s probation was revoked, and he was transferred to Reidsville State Prison. On the 26th, just days before the Presidential election, Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy telephoned King’s wife Coretta and expressed his concern over the situation. King was freed on bond largely after intervention from Robert F. Kennedy, the candidate’s brother and campaign manager. King’s father publicly announced he was changing his support from Nixon to Kennedy. After one of the closest elections in history, the young Senator from Massachusetts assumed the executive legacy of America’s civil rights history.
The Road Ahead
Before the inauguration, another U.S. Supreme Court decision came down that would shape much of the civil rights history of the coming years. On December 5, in Boynton v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court held that racial segregation in bus terminals violated the Interstate Commerce Act and was illegal. This ruling, in combination with the 1955 Keys v. Carolina Coach decision, effectively outlawed segregation on interstate buses and at the terminals servicing such buses. Well into 1961, however, these rulings were largely being ignored. Beginning that year, young civil rights activists, black and white, would ride buses into the south and test the Boynton decision. These dangerous journeys were known as the Freedom Rides.
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