When the walls of segregation toppled

Fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights sit-ins

“We don’t serve Negroes here"
ON JANUARY 31, 1960, Joseph McNeil tried to eat a meal at a bus terminal in Greensboro, North Carolina. “We don’t serve Negroes here,” the waitress told him. McNeil had heard this before. But that evening it bothered him more than usual. He returned to his dorm room at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College and talked to his roommate, Ezell Blair Jr. about the incident. Two more freshmen, Franklin McCain and David Richmond joined the conversation.

They challenged each other to take action. Before the night was over, they agreed that the next day they would go to the local Woolworth’s and sit in the “white’s only” section of the lunch counter and that they would refuse to leave until they were served.

That these students even needed to hold such a conversation reflects the fact that by 1960 progress on civil rights was proceeding at a glacial pace. Six years after the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared segregated schools unconstitutional, few students attended integrated schools.

To many, the “movement” seemed all but invisible. Even the 1955–56 Montgomery bus boycott, where an entire community mobilized for a year to desegregate city buses, did not immediately lead to further mass struggle. The movement seemed to vanish after 1956. In part, this is explained by the racist backlash of the late 1950s. In response to the legal victories and growing activity of Southern Blacks in the 1940s and early 1950s, segregationists launched a “massive resistance”—a campaign of terror, intimidation, and subterfuge designed to destroy any hope that Jim Crow would be overturned.

Almost every Southern city had a White Citizen’s Council organizing the resistance to desegregation. C. Vann Woodward describes how the “lights of reason and tolerance and moderation began to go out,”

During 1957, 1958, and 1959 a fever of rebellion and malaise of fear spread over the region. Books were banned, libraries were purged, newspapers were slanted, magazines disappeared from stands, television programs were withheld, films were excluded. Teachers, preachers, and college professors were questioned, harassed, and many were driven from their positions or fled the South. The NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] was virtually driven underground in some states.1

The result of this campaign was that desegregation became dead in the water.

Desegregation of public schools in the South came virtually to a halt. In the first three years after the Brown decision, 712 school districts were desegregated, but in the last three years of the Eisenhower Administration, the number fell to 13 in 1958, 19 in 1959, and 17 in 1960.2

This historic logjam was broken neither by Martin Luther King Jr., nor by the NAACP, nor by any of the established and venerated civil rights leaders and organizations. It was broken by the direct action of fed-up college students.

When four students from A&T College sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, they had no idea that their action would initiate the largest mass movement for civil rights in the twentieth century. Within one year, some 50,000 people participated in similar sit-ins in at least one hundred Southern cities. Between 1961 and 1963, 20,000 were arrested, with 15,000 imprisoned in 1963 alone.3

Little actually occurred at the lunch counter that first day. The waitress predictably told the four youths, “We don’t serve colored here.” “I beg to disagree with you,” responded Ezell Blair, pointing to the fact that they had already been served when they purchased school supplies moments earlier.4

Management instructed the waitress to ignore them. An older white woman patted the students on the back. “Ah, you should have done it ten years ago,” she told them. “It’s a good thing I think you’re doing.” Other whites were not so encouraging; they hurled familiar insults: “nasty, dirty niggers,” “you don’t belong here.” A Black dishwasher behind the counter opposed the action. “That’s why we can’t get anyplace today,” she told the four, “because of people like you, rabble-rousers, troublemakers…. This counter is reserved for white people, it always has been, and you are well aware of that. So why don’t you go on and stop making trouble?”5

The young men remained in their spots until the store closed for the day. On the way home, they debated what, if anything, they had achieved. But, as historian Howard Sitkoff, describes, they began to realize their impact by the time they returned to campus,

[A] local radio station had flashed the news. Word spread. The college was a beehive of activity. The four students now knew that they were not alone. That evening they met with about fifty student leaders and formed the Student Executive Committee for Justice. They voted to continue the boycott “until we get served,” and agreed on ground rules for new volunteers. The protesters would remain passive, never raise their voices, never indulge in name-calling. Their movement would be one of nonviolence and Christian love.6

“In a way, we have been planning it all our lives”
The four returned to Woolworth’s the next day with twenty-three students. The day after that they brought sixty-three students, nearly occupying every seat at the lunch counter. But the effect of the protests was felt far beyond Greensboro. The sit-ins were national news. Within two weeks, students sat in at lunch counters in some fifteen different cities in five Southern states.7

Newspaper pictures and even newsreel footage of the Greensboro protests had a dramatic effect on young people across the South, and they reacted swiftly.

Julian Bond was a student at Morehouse College when he read about Greensboro in the newspaper. He brought a copy to his friend, Lonnie King. “Don’t you think it ought to happen here?” King asked. Bond said, “It probably will.” To which King replied, “Let’s make it happen.” And they did. On March 15, they led 200 students in coordinated sit-ins at Atlanta’s city hall, the state capitol building, the county courthouse, and city bus and train stations.8

Harvey Gantt was a high school student in Charleston, South Carolina, when he heard about Greensboro:

[M]y NAACP group decided that if the kids in Greensboro and college can sit at lunch counters, then maybe we can do it. So I led a group of two or three Negroes, and we sat down at the lunch counters. It was about six weeks before we were to graduate from high school. Much to the consternation of my mother and other parents, we all got sent to jail.9

But the experience of going to jail only meant that the students quickly lost their fear of it. John Lewis’s mother begged him not to participate:

My mother wrote me a letter and said “Get out of the movement,” but I couldn’t…. I wrote her and said, “I have acted according to my convictions and according to my Christian conscience…. My soul will not be satisfied until freedom, justice, and fair play become a reality for all people.”10

To many observers, this mass movement of students seemed to appear out of nowhere. In reality, these young people were coming of age with high expectations. The 1954 Brown ruling inspired them in adolescence, as had Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle in Montgomery. Aside from the migration to Northern cities, Blacks within the South were increasingly concentrated in urban centers. As Sitkoff explains:

[T]his generation of Black students expected to mature in a different America. They grew up in an era of change. For the most part, they came from cities, not sharecropper shacks; their parents were professionals, industrial workers, civil servants, not dirt farmers. They were the middle class, certainly in aspiration if not in income. They were students in college, or expected to be there shortly. Their youth had been marked by sweeping changes in the economy, in demography, in national and international politics, and in American attitudes about race. All this had conspired to raise their aspirations, to fuel their hopes. But the promise of change far outran the reality.11

Cleveland Sellers was one such young person in 1960:

I spent many hours thinking about “the problem.” I’d become particularly aware of my environment: the differences between the Black and white sides of town, the numerous little indignities that Blacks had to endure just to survive from day to day, the awesome poverty suffered by the vast majority of Southern Blacks. My thoughts always culminated with the same vow: “I’ve gotta help do something about this shit!”12

Bob Moses was another. The newspaper images of Greensboro protests had a profound impact on him:

The students in that picture had a certain look on their faces, sort of sullen, angry, determined. Before, the Negro in the South had always looked on the defensive, cringing. This time they were taking the initiative. They were kids my age, and I knew this had something to do with my own life.13

The sit-in tactic became so popular so quickly because it offered young people a way to fight back at a moment when thousands of them were ready to do so. An anonymous student in Greensboro told a reporter, “It’s like waiting for the bus, man. You know where you’re going all the time, but you can’t get there ‘til the right vehicle comes along.” When asked how long they’d been planning the protest, another student responded, “In a way, we have been planning it all of our lives.”14

“We the union army”
Every Black student knew the risks of defying the segregation laws, or simply acting “out of place” in the South. In 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was tortured and murdered simply for whistling at a white woman in a small town in Mississippi. Students sat in the “whites only” section knowing that violence was a definite possibility, and that the police would most likely offer no protection.

In Orangeburg, South Carolina, protesters received the following instructions:

You may choose to face physical assault without protecting yourself, hands at the sides, unclenched; or you may choose to protect yourself, making plain you do not intend to hit back. If you choose to protect yourself, you practice positions such as these:

• To protect the skull, fold the hands over the head.

• To prevent disfigurement of the face, bring the elbows together in front of the eyes.

• For girls, to prevent internal injury from kicks, lie on the side and bring the knees upward to the chin; for boys, kneel down and arch over, with skull and face protected.15

In some instances students were attacked by white gangs, or by the police, or by both. Some received smoke or spit in the face, or had lit cigarettes extinguished on their backs.

Nonviolence required tremendous self-control, and was a profoundly effective tactic. The simple act of sitting—and the reaction it evoked—highlighted the absurdity and injustice of the segregation laws. Furthermore, the courage and dignity of the students exploded white Southern myths about Black people—before a world audience. One Virginia newspaper, the Richmond News Leader editorialized:

Many a Virginian must have felt a tinge of wry regret at the state of things as they are, in reading of Saturday’s “sit-downs” by Negro students in Richmond stores. Here were the colored students, in coats, white shirts, ties, and one of them was reading Goethe and one was taking notes from a biology text. And here, on the sidewalk outside, was a gang of white boys come to heckle, a ragtail rabble, slack-jawed, Black-jacketed, grinning fit to kill, and some of them, God save the mark, were waving the proud and honored flag of the Southern States in the last war fought by gentlemen. Eheu! It gives one pause.16

But given the size and scale of the protests, there was remarkably little violence. Better yet, the students were actually winning. In Greensboro, after six months of protests, the lunch counter was desegregated.17

By the time the Greensboro sit-ins started, activists in Nashville had already been preparing to do the same thing. James Lawson, a student in the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University, was running workshops in nonviolent civil disobedience. After Greensboro, they bumped up their timetable and began their own sit-ins, starting on February 6, 1960. Students in Nashville faced serious opposition. Lawson was ultimately expelled from Vanderbilt, and a prominent Black attorney’s home was bombed. Diane Nash was terrified:

I remember coming back to the dorm the night they elected me chairperson of the central committee, and I was so afraid I could hardly stand up. I said to myself, “This is Tennessee, and white people down here are mean.” And I said, “We are going to be coming up against men who are white Southern men who are forty and fifty and sixty years old, who are politicians and judges and owners of businesses, and I am twenty-two years old. What am I doing? And how is this little group of students my age going to stand up to these powerful people?”18

But by May, four theaters and six lunch counters were desegregated in Nashville. Seven cities in Tennessee had at least some desegregated lunch counters by summer.19

The struggle quickly spilled over into a broader fight for desegregation in all public accommodations. “As the pace of victory quickened in desegregating lunch counters,” Sitkoff explains,

The student movement focused on eradicating other vestiges of Jim Crow and experimented with new forms of nonviolent direct action. There were “kneel-ins” in churches, “sleep-ins” in motel lobbies, “swim-ins” in pools, “wade-ins” on restricted beaches, “read-ins” at public libraries, “play-ins” in parks, even “watch-ins” in movie theaters…. These demonstrations fundamentally transformed the use of public accommodations in the border and upper South states, where by the end of 1961 nearly two hundred cities had begun to desegregate.20

Daring to defy Jim Crow and winning, the students changed the way the nation saw them, and, importantly, they changed the way they saw themselves. “I myself desegregated a lunch counter, not somebody else, not some big man, some powerful man, but little me,” said a proud Black student. “I walked the picket line and I sat in and the walls of segregation toppled.”21

Jane Stembridge, a white student who joined the protests, remembers a young woman, Lana, sitting in next to her at a lunch counter in Atlanta:

The manager walked up behind her, said something obscene, and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Get the hell out of here, nigger.” Lana was not going…. She put her hands under the counter and held. He was rough and strong. She just held and I looked down at that moment at her hands…brown, strained…every muscle holding. All of a sudden he let go and left. I thought he knew he could not move that girl—ever.22

As Jim Crow seemed to crumble at their touch, protesters gained enormous confidence.

A student from Rock Hill bragged, “City officials pointed out that we had staged nineteen demonstrations during January, and suddenly we felt sort of ashamed of ourselves that we hadn’t staged thirty-one.”23

Franklin McCain, thinking back on that first Greensboro sit-in, remembered the change: “I probably felt better that day than I’ve ever felt in my life. I felt as though I had gained my manhood, so to speak.…”24

The new mood was infectious. Once the dam burst, there was no going back to the old ways. On one occasion, white gang members tried to stop the path of demonstrators from A&T. “Who do you think you are?” the gang demanded to know. A&T’s football team stepped forward: “We the Union Army.”25

“We weren’t afraid to talk about the change”
The sit-in movement challenged the established civil rights organizations and leaders. It eventually forced them to support it, but in the first instance students almost always had to push past the old guard, or go around them altogether.

In Atlanta, Jeremy Larner recalled that the established civil rights leaders called for a meeting with the students and told them:

So you see, kids, we’ve been in this a long time. We want the same things you do, but we know by now they can’t be gotten overnight. It’s our experience that you have to work slowly to get lasting results. We’d hate to see your movement backfire and spoil the things we’ve worked so hard for. You need guidance, and we hope you’ll have the vision to accept it.26

Above all, the old guard’s perspectives were shaped by the experience of McCarthyism. In 1949, some fifteen states passed “anti-subversion” laws. “Writing or speaking subversive words” was punishable with a life sentence in Michigan. In 1951, Tennessee mandated the death penalty for advocating revolutionary Marxist ideas. Even liberal Massachusetts set a three-year sentence for allowing a communist meeting to take place in one’s home.27

The anti-communist witch hunts of the 1940s and 1950s not only destroyed the Communist Party (CP), but threw a cold blanket on every effort to fight for progressive causes, especially the fight for racial equality.

Tragically, many liberal leaders embraced the anticommunist crusade. The leaders of the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO) banned CP members from holding any leadership positions, and expelled any affiliated union that was CP controlled or influenced—a policy which cost them approximately one million members. Thus the CIO removed from their ranks the staunchest antiracist organizers. As Manning Marable has pointed out,

AFL-CIO’s constitution empowered the Executive Council to expel any affiliate which was “dominated, controlled, or influenced in the conduct of its affairs” by Marxists…but no comparable language for segregated unions, or unions which barred Blacks.28

The NAACP was just as vicious. When W.E.B. DuBois declared himself a communist and refused to be silent about the hypocrisy of America’s foreign policy, the NAACP showed him the door—despite the fact that DuBois was a founding member of the organization! As with the CIO, the result of witch hunting radicals was devastating to the NAACP. In Harlem, membership declined from 7,129 in 1946 to 907 in 1949.29In Detroit membership plummeted from 25,000 in 1944 to 5,162 in 1952.30

In exchange for token concessions, union and civil rights leaders did their best to prevent their memberships from any actions that might be deemed “too radical,” such as supporting third parties, challenging American foreign policy, or in any way raising deeper criticisms about American society. The NAACP focused on challenging segregation in the courts, and specifically cautioned activists not to attempt to disobey the Jim Crow laws. In 1947, when the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) attempted a campaign to desegregate lunch counters in Northern and Midwestern cities (consciously modeled on the sit-down strikes of the 1930s31), the NAACP warned that “[a] disobedience movement on the part of Negroes and their white allies, if employed in the South, would result in wholesale slaughter with no good achieved.”32

But the younger generation was not cowed by the witch hunts, and was not prepared to accept segregation. As far as they were concerned, change was overdue. In Charleston, Harvey Gantt recalled,

[W]hat lived in my own mind was having seen this glimmer of light that said there was some hope. And most interesting of all, there were those of us who believed that it could change, and we weren’t afraid to talk about the change. I think that was a substantial difference between the younger people back then and the older people—who, in fact were the ones who helped us to go and sit in those meetings and listen to Roy Wilkins and the NAACP and Jim Farmer and other folks talk. It was that they were a little bit fearful, and we knew no fear.33

The anti-colonial struggles in Africa were a source of inspiration. In 1960 alone, some seventeen African nations gained independence from European powers; if Black people could throw off white domination over there, why not here? Author James Baldwin wasn’t the only one who felt that, “[a]ll of Africa will be free before we can get a lousy cup of coffee!”34

In 1960, Howard Zinn was a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. He served as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was eventually fired for supporting the student movement. Zinn summed up the feeling among the students:

Impatience was the mood of the young sit-in demonstrators: impatience with the courts, with the national and local governments, with negotiation and conciliation, with traditional Negro organizations and the old Negro leadership, with the unbearably slow pace of desegregation in a century of accelerated social change.35 [Zinn’s emphasis]

While the students were, in practice, breaking from the gradualism and accommodationism of the old guard, many still accepted the ideological framework of the Cold War.

Charles Jones was a leading organizer of the sit-ins in Charleston, South Carolina. He eagerly appeared before the anticommunist House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) panel to tell them about how, in his travels abroad, he professed to all who would listen that the racial situation in America wasn’t as bad as the communist propaganda made it out to be.36

Diane Nash, one of the first to sit in in Nashville, connected the civil rights struggle to competition with the Russians, stating that if Blacks were given equal education, “maybe some day a Negro will invent one of our missiles.”37

Taken purely on the level of ideas, the early demonstrations were not “radical.” Students dressed up for the protests to emphasize their respectability. They aimed, not to tear down American capitalism, but to show that they deserved to be included in it.

Given the weakness of the secular left, access to radical ideas and organizations were, to say the least, limited. College in general, and divinity schools in particular, were, for many young Black students, places where they could be relatively free to have wider discussions about questions of racial justice and even radical social change. Thus, as a young divinity student at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, Martin Luther King Jr. read Karl Marx and Reinhold Niebuhr38 and at Boston University organized a student club called “The Dialectical Society.”39 Many of those who would become the cadres of the 1960s struggles came out of divinity schools—such as James Lawson at Vanderbilt and John Lewis at American Baptist Theological Seminary.

When the Montgomery bus boycott propelled King to national attention, his ideas became the topic of household conversation. King combined Christian concepts of love and redemption with Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience tactics—a powerful mixture of morality and strategy. King’s influence meant that Black people nationwide held discussions about India and watched documentaries about the Indian struggle in their schools and churches.40 John Lewis attended the workshops run by James Lawson in Nashville. “We studied what Gandhi did in India,” Lewis recalls, “and we brought up what Martin Luther King, Jr. did in Montgomery and what was happening in our own country. And we talked about how some of the citizens of Europe had tried to resist the Nazis in the forties.”41 Thus, it is not surprising that King’s blend of Christianity and nonviolent civil disobedience were the ideas and strategies embraced by the student movement at its inception.

In April of 1960, veteran activist Ella Baker convened 150 student activists from all over the South, plus nineteen delegates from Northern colleges and approximately fifty representatives from the American Friends Service Committee, for the purpose of creating an organization to strengthen and extend the student movement.42 At the conference, held in Raleigh, North Carolina, Baker skillfully made use of established organizations like King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for funding and support, while encouraging the students to maintain their organizational independence. The founding statement of SNCC shows the degree to which the principal actors at that stage of the struggle viewed their actions primarily in moral and religious terms:

We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the presupposition of our faith, and the manner of our action. Nonviolence as it grows from Judaic-Christian tradition seeks a social order of justice permeated by love. Integration of human endeavor represents the crucial first step toward such a society.

Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice. The redemptive community supersedes systems of gross social immorality.

Love is the central motif of nonviolence. Love is the force by which God binds man to Himself and man to man. Such love goes to the extreme; it remains loving and forgiving even in the midst of hostility. It matches the capacity of evil to inflict suffering with an even more enduring capacity to absorb evil, all the while persisting in love.

By appealing to conscience and standing on the moral nature of human existence, nonviolence nurtures the atmosphere in which reconciliation and justice become actual possibilities.43

Certainly not all participants raised nonviolence to the level of a principle. Some viewed nonviolence as a tactic. Connie Curry, a white activist, was elected as one of the non-student advisers (along with Ella Baker) to SNCC in its early days. She remembers that nonviolence was debated from the beginning. “[W]e used to have argument after argument of whether or not nonviolence was a technique or a way of life.”44 Still, the dominance of religious and moral ideas made it easy for some on the left to write off the student movement—it was too Christian, too liberal, it believed in the government and the Democratic Party.

But ideas always lag behind action. The students had set themselves the task of ending Jim Crow, and committed themselves to do whatever it took to win. Inevitably, that struggle would shape their ideas. In a very short time, SNCC in fact became the most radical of all the civil rights organizations. Those who had chosen to abstain from the struggle because of its formal ideas were doomed to irrelevance.

“Revolution permeates discussion like never before”
SNCC’s founding members were buoyed by the success of the sit-ins, and motivated by the desire to spread that success to bring down Jim Crow altogether. They set out with a belief that if they could win by showing the powers that be what was really going on.

“We were operating on the theory,” Julian Bond recalls,

that there was a problem, you expose it to the world, the world says, “How horrible!” and moves to correct it…. We thought there was even a hidden reservoir of support among white Southerners…. And we thought that the Kennedy Administration was on our side and that, again, all you had to do was put your case before them and they would straighten out what was wrong.45

But even more importantly, they took an uncompromising stand—they would reject tokenism, and affirm that the struggle was for “full equality.” Marking the break with the legalistic gradualism of the NAACP, they gave loud applause to a speaker who argued: “The greatest progress of the American Negro in the future will not be made in Congress or in the Supreme Court; it will come in the jails.”46

From its inception, SNCC members were on the frontlines of the struggle. They were the first to put themselves in harm’s way, the first to go to jail. They dared to send their organizers into the Deep South to register voters, to defy Jim Crow, the police, and the Ku Klux Klan. They did all of this for little or no pay, surviving on donated meals, sleeping on floors, or the occasional bed if one was offered.

Manning Marable relates a minor incident that shows the courage of SNCC activists:

On 30 April, 1962, Diane Nash Bevel, who had married activist James Bevel the year before, stood before a Mississippi court on charges of contributing to “juvenile delinquency” —she had taught Black teenagers in McComb, Mississippi, techniques needed for nonviolent demonstrations. Deliberately, she sat in the “whites-only” section of the courtroom. The angry judge sentenced the pregnant woman to serve ten days in the local jail for that single act of defiance. Nash responded, “I believe that if I go to jail now it may help hasten that day when my child and all children will be free—not only on the day of their birth but for all their lives.”47

As early as 1961, the experience of organizing against Jim Crow, facing racist violence, and suffering the foot-dragging of the federal government and the Democratic Party, produced a profound ideological shift among SNCC activists. Tom Hayden sat in on a SNCC meeting in Mississippi that year and reported the activists discussed that

beyond lunch counter desegregation there are more serious evils which must be ripped out by any means; exploitation, socially destructive capital, evil political and legal structure, and myopic liberalism which is anti-revolutionary. Revolution permeates discussion like never before.48

But it was not simply a matter of SNCC activists bringing radical ideas and strategies to the Deep South. Rather, the students were in large part influenced by the militancy of those they sought to organize, as well as their own experience of racist violence. “That the attitudes of the SNCC workers were affected by daily contacts with militant Black farmers,” writes Carson,

was vividly demonstrated by their response to the arrest in southwest Georgia of a SNCC worker for possession of three pistols. Roy Shields, project director for the region, was forced to respond to criticisms by John Lewis, Marion Barry, and other proponents of nonviolence who maintained that he should have discouraged his staff from carrying weapons. Members of the Alabama staff vigorously defended Shields. “We are not King or SCLC,” [Stokeley] Carmichael exclaimed. “They don’t do the kind of work we do nor do they live in the areas we live in. They don’t ride the highways at night.” He asserted that for King nonviolence was “everything” but for SNCC it had always been simply a tactic. When Bill Hansen asked why workers did not get permits for their guns, Carmichael protested: “Be reasonable. Can you imagine us going to the local communities for a permit?”.… Carmichael recalled that the discussion ended when he asked those carrying weapons to place them on the table. Nearly all of the Black organizers working in the deep South were armed.49

By 1963, SNCC members were organizing study groups on Marxism, the Cuban revolution, and African liberation struggles. At their founding convention, they had allowed trade-union allies to prevent Bayard Rustin from speaking because of his socialist background. Now, a few years later, ironically it was the same SNCC members who considered Rustin and King too conservative, and criticized them from the left. When King dismissed an aide in 1963 because of previous connections with the CP, SNCC activists were enraged. Stokely Carmichael argued that Negro moderates must “stop taking a defensive stand on communism!”50 That same year, SNCC leaders traveled to Africa to meet with anti-colonial leaders, and with Malcolm X.

As these activists turned their attention to bigger social problems—poverty and the war in Vietnam—they were armed with a tremendous confidence that they could create change. But America’s economic system and its foreign policy objectives were more tenacious evils, and unlike segregation, did not crumble at their touch. Thus, many who started out as students trying to win over America with Christian love ended up as professional revolutionaries trying to build parties that could overthrow it.

That such developments were unleashed, in the first instance, by just four college students in Greensboro on the first of February 1960, is a fluke of history. There were precursor sit-ins that simply did not take off in the same way. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Communist Party organized white and Black activists to sit in segregated facilities as they traveled to national marches in Washington, DC. CORE members did lunch counter sit-ins in the 1940s. There had been sit-ins conducted by NAACP youth in the summer of 1958 in Wichita, Kansas, and in Oklahoma City. None of these spread like the Greensboro sit-ins. Certainly, the chill of McCarthyism and the segregationist backlash retarded the emergence of a mass movement against Jim Crow. But the precise moment at which changes in consciousness, confidence, and expectations allow people to overcome those obstacles is impossible to foresee. Thus, the time, place, and even the initial form of a future mass movement may take us all by surprise. But the fact of the reemergence of large-scale struggle should not. Movements of the oppressed may suffer setbacks and delays—sometimes for decades—but no one suffers oppression indefinitely without resistance. Such struggles, on a mass scale, may emerge sooner or later, but as long as people are oppressed, they will emerge. We would do well to prepare for them.

  1. C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002 edition), 165-66.
  2. Ibid., 167.
  3. Manning Marable, Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, 1945–2006 (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2007 edition), 67.
  4. Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality, 1945–1980 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 70.
  5. Quoted in Ibid., 70–71.
  6. Ibid., 71.
  7. Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), 16.
  8. Sitkoff, 78–80.
  9. Quoted in Fred Powledge, Free at Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991), 219–20.
  10. Quoted in Zinn, 19.
  11. Sitkoff, 84.
  12. Quoted in Jack M. Bloom, Class, Race, & the Civil Rights Movement (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 158.
  13. Quoted in Zinn, 17.
  14. Quoted in Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996 edition), 16.
  15. Quoted in Zinn, 24.
  16. Quoted in Ibid., 27.
  17. Sitkoff, 72.
  18. Quoted in Powledge, 208–09.
  19.  Zinn, 22–23.
  20.  Sitkoff, 81–82.
  21. Quoted in Ibid., 91.
  22. Quoted in Ibid., 90.
  23. Quoted in Ibid., 91.
  24. Quoted in Ibid., 90.
  25. Quoted in Bloom, 161.
  26. Quoted in Zinn, 31.
  27. Marable, 19.
  28. Ibid., 49.
  29. Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 169.
  30. Thomas J. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008), 106.
  31. Ibid., 146.
  32. Marable, 24.
  33. Quoted in Powledge, 220.
  34. Quoted in Sitkoff, 83.
  35. Zinn, 26.
  36. Carson, 13.
  37. Quoted in Ibid.
  38. Paul LeBlanc, “Martin Luther King: Christian core, socialist bedrock,” Against the Current, January/February 2002, No. 96.
  39. Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Touchstone, 2000), 150.
  40. Sitkoff, 83.
  41. Quoted in Powledge, 205.
  42. Sitkoff, 92.
  43. Carson, 23-24.
  44. Interview with Connie Curry in Howell Raines, My Soul is Rested: The Story of The Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South (London: Penguin, 1987), 107.
  45. Quoted in Bloom, 160.
  46. Quoted in Sitkoff, 93.
  47. Marable, 64.
  48. Quoted in Carson, 53.
  49. Carson, 164.
  50. Marable, 67.

Issue #60

July 2008

The New Winter Soldiers

Iraq war veterans speak out
Issue contents

Top story



Critical Thinking