The Story of the Movement — 26 Events
"The workshops in nonviolence made the difference... the philosophy... the tactics, the techniques, how to... take the blows and still respond with... dignity."
—Rev. C. T. Vivian, Nashville activist
Southern cities maintain segregated public facilities -- like movie theaters, hotels, and lunch counters in downtown stores. In Greensboro, North Carolina, four black college students stage the first sit-in at a white lunch counter. Activist Jim Lawson holds workshops in non-violent protest at Nashville's Fisk University. He attracts people like college student Diane Nash and seminarians John Lewis and C. T. Vivian, and teaches non-violent direct action tactics adopted from Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, including peaceful resistance.
The protesters, dressed in their best clothes, target Nashville's lunch counters, where they sit and wait to be served. The stores respond by closing the counters, but the students continue to sit, quietly doing homework. After several weeks, their protest attracts gangs of white toughs, and police who arrest the activists for disorderly conduct. More students sit to take their places, filling the jails and refusing to pay fines. When punched or assaulted by segregationists, the protesters do not retaliate, but simply protect themselves and each other.
The sit-in movement spreads to 69 cities across the South, black communities organize economic boycotts, and sympathetic Northerners picket local branches of the department stores. In Nashville, a climate of fear culminates in a bombing that destroys the house of Alexander Looby, a black lawyer who has been working with the activists. Thousands march to City Hall and confront Mayor Ben West. After the mayor concedes that the lunch counter segregation is wrong, businesses quickly desegregate.
Elated with their success, students found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, working with Southern Christian Leadership Conference organizers like Ella Baker, who advises the students to maintain a separate organization. In the close presidential race of 1960, John Kennedy wins black support and, narrowly, the election.
Other Events: 1960
An American U-2 spy plane is shot down over the Soviet Union and its pilot, Gary Powers, is captured.
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which depicts race relations in Alabama, wins the Pulitzer Prize.
Berry Gordy founds Motown Records in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. Its roster will include such legendary African American artists as The Supremes and Marvin Gaye.
The first prescription drug for healthy patients, Enovid, is approved for birth control.
Children's television show "Howdy Doody" wraps up after 13 years; a cartoon about a prehistoric family, "The Flintstones," debuts.
A record audience of 75 million Americans tunes in to the first televised presidential campaign debates. Youthful candidate John F. Kennedy's performance is credited with helping him win the election over Richard M. Nixon.
Two standout African American athletes, boxer Cassius Clay (who will later change his name to Muhammad Ali) and sprinter Wilma Rudolph, win gold medals at the Summer Olympics in Rome.
Virginia-Norfolk Journal and Guide, March 5, 1960
Behind the Headlines: Sit-Down Protest Should Always Be Non-Violent
by Gordon B. Hancock
As a means of protest against segregation and its evil concomitants, the current sit-down movement among Negro students is quite understandable...
...Nothing would be more disastrous than a cessation of protest against the unchristian and the undemocratic. These sit-down students have been taught in our great American history that resistance to tyranny is honorable and righteous...
The New York Times, April 18, 1960
Nashville Issue is Full Equality
Sit-in Movement Is Prelude to Campaign by Negroes
...Seven weeks after the Negro student sit-in movement struck the city that proudly boasts the title "Athens of the South" no solution of the problem appeared on the horizon...
...But vigorous, imaginative and energetic citizens -- both white and black -- were striving to resolve the food-service issue....
...Not that Nashville citizens feel especially proud of their record thus far. "I'm sorry for what brings you here," said a professional man. And a woman wrote to The Nashville Banner saying:
"Nashville, the eyes of the country are upon you. Are you proud of what they are seeing? Until now I could look anyone anywhere straight in the eye and say gladly, 'I'm from Nashville, Tenn.'"
The letter was inspired by new outbreaks of minor violence that have flared up sporadically as a counterpoint to the sit-in movement...
The Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1960
Bomb Blasts Integration Leader's Home
Nashville, April 19 -- A dynamite bomb shattered the home of a Negro integration leader in Nashville today and touched off a protest march on City Hall by 2,500 Negroes demanding an end to racial intimidation and violence.
Mayor Ben West told the Nashville marchers that "you also have a responsibility. You all have the power to destroy this city so let's don't have any mobs."
West drew cheers when he said "I appeal to all citizens to end discrimination, to have no bigotry, no bias, no discrimination."
The Negro marchers, led by students, marched in columns three and four abreast, circling the Davidson County Courthouse. Then they held a prayer session on the Courthouse steps. They dispersed quietly after West's remarks.
The Chicago Tribune, May 11, 1960
Negroes Win Dining Rights in Nashville
Secret Parleys Bring Lunch Counter Peace
Six downtown Nashville department, dime, and drug stores opened their lunch counters to Negroes for the first time Tuesday and served them without incident under terms of a bi-racial agreement reached after weeks of secret negotiations...
...The agreement... included a local news blackout by radio and television stations and newspapers. No word of the desegregation was broadcast or published locally. Merchants and Negro leaders hoped the local blackout would forestall incidents...
..."It's a gamble," [a Nashville] store manager said. "But we felt the community is better prepared for integration than it has ever been."
Among the stores which desegregated lunch counters, one official said: "There's no turning back now. There's no trial period or anything. This is it."
I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table
Songwriter: Traditional, adapted by SNCC
Performed by: Hollis Watkins
Listen to the Music
At first, the students at the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins remained silent, as a contrast to the jeers of the whites around them and to avoid arrest for disorderly conduct. Once they realized that they would be inevitably arrested, they introduced songs to their protests.
"I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table" took a traditional religious tune and added contemporary verses by members of SNCC. The original spiritual lines, like "I'm gonna sit at the welcome table" and "I'm gonna walk these streets of glory," were matched with "I'm gonna sit at Woolworth's lunch counter." The contrast between the earthbound and the heavenly made the protesters' goals less elusive; their local sit-ins were the first step toward important changes in society.
For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.
Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, www.si.edu/ folkways.
This extended series of clips intersperses a news documentary description of the 1960 Nashville lunch counter sit-ins with the recollections of various participants.
The first footage shows students walking to lunch counters, the counters targeted, and students leaders describing their motives and strategies.
Several white people are then shown giving reasons why they oppose the sit-ins (although one person feels black customers should be served).
Then footage of a white man attacking protesters carrying signs is interspersed with a descriptions of the event by the white student who was attacked.
The next clips show a sit-in, the students being attacked by a white mob at the lunch counters, and then police arresting the students.
Footage follows from their trial while the judge who convicted them justifies his actions.
A white man describes community attitudes towards the protesters, followed by footage of the bombed-out home of Alexander Looby, a lawyer who defended the students.
Sit-in leader Diane Nash and Nashville mayor Ben West describe a protest held shortly after the Looby bombing while footage of it is shown. Nash and West relate how an exchange between them on the steps of the city hall led to the mayor's admission that segregation of the lunch counters was wrong. The clips end with footage of students applauding West.
Footage courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration, Special Media Archives Services Division, College Park, MD.