The Memphis, TN Sit-Ins

Updated on November 24, 2017
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Robert Odell, Jr. enjoys sharing the rich history and culture of Memphis, Tennessee where he has lived and worked for several years.

The Sit-In Movement Began at a Store Lunch Counter

This 1960s photo shows students participating in a nonviolent sit-in protest at a Nashville, TN lunch counter. Using the successful model of the Nashville sit-ins,  Memphis college students took the initiative to end racial injustice in their city.
This 1960s photo shows students participating in a nonviolent sit-in protest at a Nashville, TN lunch counter. Using the successful model of the Nashville sit-ins, Memphis college students took the initiative to end racial injustice in their city. | Source
This Woolworth lunch counter is typical of where many 1960 sit-ins took place.
This Woolworth lunch counter is typical of where many 1960 sit-ins took place.

1960 Memphis, TN Sit-Ins

Using the successful model of the Nashville, TN sit-ins of February 1960, Memphis, TN college students took the initiative to end racial injustice in their own city.

  • A small group of LeMoyne Owen college students organized sit-ins on March 18, 1960.
  • The Main Library in the city of Memphis was targeted (40 students sat at tables).
  • Later, demonstrations were held at department stores (more than 300 demonstrators were arrested on loitering charges)
  • Local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) secretary Maxine Smith helped in the struggle. As a result, buses and city parks were later integrated.

Sit-In "Do's" and "Don'ts"

Memphis protesters used many of the same sit-in "Do's" and "Don'ts" that the successful Nashville demonstrators used during sit-ins:

  • Do show yourself friendly on the counter at all times.
  • Do sit straight and always face the counter.
  • Don't strike back, or curse back if attacked.
  • Don't laugh out.
  • Don't hold conversations.
  • Don't block entrances.

Protesters were also to look like model citizens by dressing up in their best Sunday clothing.

1964 Civil Rights Act

Although The Civil Rights Act of 1964 declared segregation at lunch counters unlawful, unending prejudice caused sit-ins to continue in some areas of the South even after passage of the Act.

Sit-Ins Continued

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 declared segregation at lunch counters unlawful, but unending prejudice caused sit-ins to continue in some areas even after passage of the Act.

Segregation After The 1964 Civil Rights Act

This depiction of a 1965 sit-in at a Memphis restaurant shows how segregation practices were alive and well even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed.
This depiction of a 1965 sit-in at a Memphis restaurant shows how segregation practices were alive and well even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed. | Source

Memphis Sit-Ins Helped to End Segregation

What Is a Sit-In?

Dictonary.com defines a sit-in as "any organized protest in which a group of people peacefully occupy and refuse to leave a premises." The dictionary goes on to describe a sit-in as an "organized passive protest, especially against racial segregation, in which the demonstrators occupy seats prohibited to them, as in restaurants and other public places."

It all began on February 1, 1960 when four African American North Carolina college students, who had just purchased school supplies at Woolworth's in Greensboro, decided to be served at the lunch counter.

In 1960, Four College Students Started The Sit-In Movement

On February 1, 1960 four African American college students sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro, South Carolina and politely asked for service.  Their actions started the peaceful sit-in protests.
On February 1, 1960 four African American college students sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro, South Carolina and politely asked for service. Their actions started the peaceful sit-in protests. | Source

History of the Sit-In

On February 1, 1960, four African American college freshmen (Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond, and Ezell Blair, Jr.) from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College walked into an F.W. Woolworth Company store in Greensboro, North Carolina. After purchasing some school supplies, the students went to the lunch counter and politely asked to be served.

One student was quoted as saying, "We believe, since we buy books and papers in the other part of the store, we should get served in this part."

The students sat at the lunch counter until the store closed and still were not served.

A larger group of students returned the next day. The story spread and civil rights organizations got involved in the protests. In a couple of weeks, students in eleven cities including Memphis, TN; held sit-ins. Woolworth and S.H. Kress stores were primary targets.

The sit-ins were planned as follows:

  • A group of students would go to a lunch counter and ask to be served.
  • If the students were served they would move on to the next lunch counter.
  • If the students were not served, they would not move until they had been.
  • If the students were arrested, a new group would take their place.
  • The students would always remain nonviolent and respectful.

The Greensboro Sit-In

Source

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Northerners Entered the Movement

Northern students began demonstrating at local branches of chain stores that were segregated in the South.

A Columbia student named Martin Smolin led demonstrations at Woolworth's. Smolin stated; "People have asked me why northerners, especially white people, who have been in the majority in our picketing demonstrations in New York, take an active part in an issue which doesn't concern them. My answer is that injustice anywhere is everybody's concern."

When asked if he was advocating that Blacks in New York stay out of national chain stores such as Woolworth's, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell of Harlem stated; "Oh no. I'm advocating that American citizens interested in democracy stay out of these stores."

Memphis Students Sit-In For Adam Clayton Powell

In 1969 students of the Black Student Association of Memphis State University asked President C.C. Humphreys for funds to bring forth U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell as a speaker.

When Humphreys refused the students returned days later, sat in his office, and refused to leave.

On that day; April 28, 1969, more than 100 black and white students were arrested.

Memphis Students Sit-In For Adam Clayton Powell

On April 28, 1969, more than 100 black and white students were arrested after a sit-in that took place in the office of President C.C. Humphreys of Memphis State University.
On April 28, 1969, more than 100 black and white students were arrested after a sit-in that took place in the office of President C.C. Humphreys of Memphis State University.

Passive Resistance

The passive resistance of the sit-in movement greatly dampened the flames of inequity in the South.

The Power of Nonviolence

Louis Emanuel Lomax earned his Ph.D. at Yale Universiy in 1947. An African-American author, he was also the first African-American television journalist.

Concerning the sit-ins, Lomax stated, "They were proof that the Negro leadership class, epitomized by the NAACP, was no longer the prime mover in the Negro's social revolt. The demonstrations have shifted the desegregation battles from the courtroom to the marketplace."

The sit-ins demonstrated the power that nonviolence had to change society.

By the time 1960 had ended, 70,000 people had participated in sit-ins, and 3600 had been arrested.

The passive resistance of the sit-in movement had greatly dampened the flames of inequity in the South.

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