I was reminded recently of a piece I read some time back by Andrew B. Lewis for the Los Angeles Times (“The Sit-ins That Changed America,” 2/7/10). Lewis’s tribute to civil rights history began:
“The ‘Sixties’ were born on February 1, 1960…when four African-American college students staged the first sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.”
Lewis went on to describe how this and subsequent sit-ins inspired by the Greensboro example revitalized the civil rights movement, which had floundered after so many attempts to integrate southern schools following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education had failed and the successful Montgomery bus boycott had become a memory. Lewis specifically noted that the young people involved in these sit-ins formed the separate Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to preserve their independence from the NAACP, which balked at their aggressive tactics. This separation gave room for significant young leaders like John Lewis, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Stokely Carmichael, and Marion Barry to develop. The success of the civil rights movement thereafter was largely the result of the aggressive egalitarian pattern set by these student protesters, Lewis claimed. Because of these, our country was permanently and significantly changed.
Only, there were sit-ins in the US that pre-dated the events in North Carolina. Civil rights groups desegregated literally hundreds of restaurants and public spaces between 1942 and 1964. The organizers and participants of these protests never got national credit for their leadership like Bond and Carmichael, et al, and their sit-ins didn’t spark a chain of similar events around the country. One has to wonder why – and, also, why we haven’t investigated that question more. How is it that Greensboro has become a symbol in our memories but the others have been lost to our national consciousness? History textbooks mark the beginning of the sit-in movement in North Carolina, but we in Oklahoma certainly know better. We know that it came here first (or, rather, not – but we’ll get to that). We also know that the rest of the country didn’t notice what happened in our state – and others nearby. I bet most Americans aren’t even aware that there ever was segregation in Oklahoma. They probably also don’t know that it was a couple of court cases from this state that led to the desegregation of public schools in our country. Oklahoma was a pivotal part of the civil rights movement in the twentieth century, only the rest of the country doesn’t pay any attention to that. Truthfully, it was the heartland that set us on the path to desegregation – places that we don’t think of when we think of Jim Crow were the vulnerable ways in for activists.
In 1939, the real first sit-in protest for desegregation in the south occurred in Alexandria, Virginia. Five young black men went to the library there to obtain library cards, and when they were denied them, they took seats at various tables and sat down with books to read. The men were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. When the cases went to trial later, their attorney got a police officer to acknowledge on the stand that they were disorderly by being black in a library meant for white people. After the judge continued the case multiple times to avoid issuing a ruling, it was let go without resolution. Meanwhile, a black World War I veteran brought a lawsuit to obtain a library card there through legal channels. The judge in that case affirmed that there were no grounds for denying the applicant a card, which prompted the City to delay issuing cards to black residents so they could hastily construct a separate library for them. Although these incidents made the news, they were quickly forgotten after World War II broke out. Attention turned elsewhere, and the Alexandria library system was left segregated.
During the war, a group of pacifists formed an organization they called the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). They were influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi on nonviolent protest. The group had white and black members, and its goal was to bring Gandhi’s form of non-violent resistance to the United States. Chapters of the organization sprouted around the country. Their efforts kicked off in Chicago, where members undertook desegregating a noted restaurant in the City’s famous Loop district in October, 1942. At first activists were denied service altogether; then, later, they were admitted but served garbage from the kitchen trash and inedible concoctions on multiple occasions. In June of 1943, protesters finally had their first success after a lengthy sit-in. Despite substantial waits, the parties were served properly for once. There were sporadic incidences of poor treatment after that, but for the most part, the group had succeeded in obtaining equal treatment at the establishment. By the post-war period, that had become the norm.
After the war, CORE’s St. Louis branch decided to challenge segregation there. We don’t think of Missouri as a Jim Crow state like Mississippi. It was, however, a former slave state and segregation had become the practice there too. As in Chicago, CORE members opposed a well-accepted custom that reached well beyond the Old South. At first, the group just handed out flyers denouncing segregation outside of a local store with a lunch counter which would not serve blacks. Later, white members of the group went in to order food and shared it with their black cohorts who joined them inside. Store employees closed down the counter in response. Sit-ins at the counter became a weekly event then, and participants included veterans and women with babies whose pictures appeared in the local press as part of the coverage. It took until 1954 before the store agreed to desegregate but eventually, the protesters won. Subsequent sit-ins by CORE members and supporters in Baltimore had speedier results, effecting change within days.
Four years after the St. Louis protests ended, members of the NAACP Youth Council in Wichita, Kansas began organizing sit-ins at the drug store lunch counters in their city. This effort was planned and executed by students, and they pursued it against the wishes of the national NAACP leadership. Beginning with a two-day-a-week schedule in July 1958, their plan was to occupy all the seats at the lunch counter so that the store wouldn’t make any money if it didn’t serve them. Other patrons wouldn’t have a place to sit and be served. Here, white patrons, spectators, and employees tried to intimidate the protesters and were overtly hostile to them. Despite the threats and insults, the young people persevered, and in 23 days, they met their first success. In short order, the youth turned their sights on other local businesses and more victories followed.
On the heels of that first win in Wichita, young NAACP members in Oklahoma City also began organized sit-ins. Some of them had gone to New York to perform at an event at the NAACP’s headquarters that summer and experienced for the first time what it was like to have equal access and service in public places. When they returned home, they decided to organize a program to end the segregation in OKC; this included picketing, sit-ins and protests. Their work gained support from the local Catholic Church and some other religious groups. They had some quick successes and other longer campaigns. The protests spread to various other parts of the state and continued until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to deny service in public places to anyone because of their race.
Clearly, then, there was a history of sit-ins and protests in the US that pre-dated Greensboro’s in 1960, yet Lewis’ take on North Carolina as a starting point for the struggle for desegregation is a common misconception that endures. The idea persists that it began there – in the Old South. In reality, it was the heart of our country that pioneered the change that later took off in the southeast. In the days after the Greensboro protests began, students in Raleigh, Charlotte, Richmond and Nashville followed suit. Not long after that, young people in Mississippi did the same. Soon, sit-ins would spill into communities throughout the south – a river of change that somehow didn’t seem to flow from earlier protests.
Today, a piece of the Greensboro lunch counter sits in the National Museum of American History as a tribute to the wave of desegregation efforts the sit-in there set in motion. Earlier successful protests, in contrast, have become part of a largely forgotten past, and the “Sixties” are now defined by a popular civil rights folklore that is shaped by how we remember rather than by the actual history. Everybody knows about Mississippi, but they don’t know about Oklahoma or Missouri or Kansas, goddam.