In the 1950s the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People was involved in the struggle to end segregation on buses and trains. In 1952 segregation on inter-state railways was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. This was followed in 1954 by a similar judgment concerning inter-state buses. However, states in the Deep South continued their own policy of transport segregation. This usually involved whites sitting in the front and blacks sitting nearest to the front had to give up their seats to any whites that were standing. (1)
African American people who disobeyed the state's transport segregation policies were arrested and fined. On 1st December, 1955, Rosa Parks, a middle-aged tailor's assistant from Montgomery, Alabama, who was tired after a hard day's work, refused to give up her seat to a white man. After her arrest, Martin Luther King, a pastor at the local Baptist Church, helped organize protests against bus segregation. It was decided that black people in Montgomery would refuse to use the buses until passengers were completely integrated. King was arrested and his house was fire-bombed. Others involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott also suffered from harassment and intimidation, but the protest continued. (2)
For thirteen months the 17,000 black people in Montgomery walked to work or obtained lifts from the small car-owning black population of the city. Eventually, the loss of revenue and a decision by the Supreme Court forced the Montgomery Bus Company to accept integration. Martin Luther King toured the country making speeches urging other groups to take up the struggle against segregation, to spread the "Montgomery experience" across the South". (3)
Members of Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) were mainly pacifists who had been deeply influenced by Henry David Thoreau and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the nonviolent civil disobedience campaign that he used successfully against British rule in India. CORE became convinced that the same methods could be employed by blacks to obtain civil rights in America. (4)
James Lawson of CORE ran non-violence training classes at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle. Rosa Parks attended a 1955 workshop at Highlander four months before refusing to give up her bus seat, an act that ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Other people on the course included John Lewis, Marion Barry and James Bevel. The students role-played demonstrators and attackers to prepare themselves for the hatred they would encounter. It was not long before she was elected chairperson of CORE in Nashville. (5)
CORE decided to campaign to bring an end to segregated seating in restaurants. In Greensboro, North Carolina, a small group of black students 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 Martin Luther King they did not hit back. 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." (6)
CORE began a campaign against segregated seating in Nashville in February 1960. They achieved their first success when Diane Nash, Matthew Walker Jr., Peggy Alexander and Stanley Hemphill became the first blacks to eat lunch at the Post House Restaurant in the Nashville Greyhound Bus Terminal. It was the first Southern city where blacks and whites could sit together for lunch. As one civil rights activist pointed out: “It was the first time anyone in a leadership position who could make a difference, made a difference." (7) Students continued the sit-ins at segregated lunch counters for months, accepting arrest in line with nonviolent principles. During this period Nash emerged as one of the leaders of the sit-in movement. (8)
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." (9)
Stokely Carmichael also joined the campaign: "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." (10)
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. 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. Martin Luther King and large number of his supporters, including schoolchildren, were arrested and jailed. (11)
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." (12)
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 that included the following: I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification," one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today." (13)
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. (14)
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.
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.
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.