The Catalyst That Created A Movement: 60 Years After The Greensboro Sit-Ins

Feb 18, 2020

On Feb. 1, 1960, the fight for civil rights changed forever when four freshmen students from North Carolina A&T State University refused to leave a lunch counter at Woolworth’s Department Store in Greensboro. 

The incident is a well-documented piece of civil rights history taught in classrooms around the country. But the story of the Greensboro Four is often missing some crucial set-up: these students were not the first to use this protest strategy, and the decision to sit-in that particular day was not a spontaneous one.

A&T students endured verbal and physical abuse from other local residents during the Woolworth sit-ins.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

There were previous sit-ins in other places in the South: Howard University students orchestrated a “stool sitting” in Washington, D.C., in 1943, and a reverend and six others sat at a whites-only counter at an ice cream parlor in Durham in 1957. These four A&T students and their peers around the country came of age after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and were frustrated with how little had changed. They were also surrounded by teachers — and in some cases parents — who were involved in the civil rights struggle and who encouraged them to stand up for what they believed in.

Host Frank Stasio talks to historians William Chafe and Blair LM Kelley about the significance of this moment and how it shaped the American South. Chafe is a professor emeritus of history at Duke University and the author of “Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom” (Oxford University Press/1980). He conducted oral history interviews with those close to the Greensboro sit-ins years after they happened. Kelley is an assistant dean of interdisciplinary studies and international programs and an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University. She explores the important role of women in the sit-ins and the civil rights movement. 

Interview Highlights

Kelley on previous sit-ins:

We can track sit-ins all the way back to Reconstruction. There were fights to integrate the street cars in Southern cities. There were — in the South — sit-ins to protest segregation multiple times. I don't know if they were called sit-ins, but people who physically sat in spaces they were not supposed to be in and would refuse to move and defied the laws, defied the customs that said that black riders couldn't be on streetcars. Even before that, in the North, in the 1850s in New York City and in Philadelphia, there were sit-ins to protest. But these sit-ins of the 1960 movement became really transformational in a unique way and caught fire as a cultural phenomenon.

These sit-ins of the 1960 movement became really transformational in a unique way and caught fire as a cultural phenomenon. - Blair LM Kelley

Chafe on the important role of Greensboro in this movement:

I think it was really, really important that the sit-ins started in Greensboro. Because if they’d started in Jackson, Mississippi, there would have been a violent suppression. There would have been complete suppression of every effort to make change happen. In Greensboro, there was a “aura of civility” — we're not violent here. We're paternalistic, etc, etc. And what that did was to give it an opening. And then Winston-Salem and Charlotte and Durham and across the state, demonstrations took place. And within two months there had been 54 cities and nine different states where sit-ins took place. But they had to start in a place which could be an example of what could be done.

Chafe on if an event like the sit-ins could be effective today:

I think we have to find new ways of mobilizing and creating agendas for action. And this is where the political realm becomes very important and where we need to basically talk about getting people who are of different racial backgrounds together to … work on common problems of discrimination and inequality.

Kelley on the idea of a sit-in movement for modern times:

In many ways, segregation was such an obvious target, right? … But the things that we are confronting now are much more complex. In part mass incarceration, I think, is a great example. Because it takes people away from the community in which they are and sends them to whole other parts of the country, far afield from the communities that could organize on their behalf. It uses those bodies to count in the census in those other places, to overrepresent them. So there’s this really complex puzzle that we would have to put together to think about: How do we organize a mass movement? Where would we sit in if we were going to undo those apparatuses?