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Student Activism,
Sit-ins, and
the Rise of SNCC
• NAACP (est. 1909 after Illinois race riot)—Interracial coalition working
within system to advocate for legal change; greatest victory was Brown decision.
• NUL (est. 1910 to address social dislocation among Black Southern migrants
at onset of the Great Migration)—Focused on concerns of urban life, i.e.
housing conditions, integration, social programs, and socioeconomic
opportunities.
• CORE (est. 1943)—Sought to apply principles of nonviolence in struggle
against segregation; major role in Freedom Rides and the March on Washington.
• SCLC (est. 1957)—Formed and led by King after the Montgomery bus
boycott to organize Black ministers and leaders in support of nonviolent direct
action. Initially focused on desegregation in the South.
• SNCC (pronounced “Snick,” est. 1960)—Emerged from student sit-ins aiming
to harness energies of youth; major roles in sit-ins, Freedom Rides, March on
Washington, MS Freedom Summer, MFDP; ultimately shifted focus from
desegregation to fieldwork and community organizing, esp. in MS, AL, and GA.
The “Big Five” Civil Rights Organizations
Student Sit-ins (beg. Feb 1960)
On February 1, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil,
students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, sat down at the segregated
lunch counter of a Woolworth’s store in the city of Greensboro to demand service. Their
act quickly inspired similar protests throughout the South, sparking the direct action phase
of the civil rights movement and ushering in the student movement of the 1960s.
Sit-in at Cherrydale Drug Fair,
Arlington, Virginia
(June 1960).
Sit-in at Woolworth’s,
Atlanta, Georgia
(October 1960).
Sit-in at Woolworth’s,
Jackson, Mississippi
(May 1963).
“As a young man, the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. began
leading workshops on the principles of nonviolent
resistance.” (Source: Vanderbilt University Special
Collections and University Archives)
James Lawson (1928 - )
For months prior to the launch of student sit-ins in
Greensboro, Rev. James Lawson had been working
with students in Nashville, Tennessee, running
workshops and practicing nonviolent direct action
as a tactic for achieving social change. Lawson had
studied Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolence in India,
and was convinced by Dr. King to move from Ohio
to focus on dismantling segregation in the South.
As a result of his activism, he was expelled from
the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University in
1960. Lawson was a guiding figure of the Nashville
Student Movement and a leading proponent of
philosophical nonviolence. His students included
John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and Marion
Barry, among many others.
Tactical Nonviolence
As a tactic, nonviolent direct action anticipated aggression on the part of segregationists and law enforcement, and it
trained demonstrators not to respond. The success of tactical nonviolence relied on the presence of cameras and
onlookers to protect practitioners from the most brutal forms of violence. It required discipline and courage, as
nonviolent protesters had to believe that in demonstrating their strength and convictions, the righteousness of their
demands would be evident. While philosophical nonviolence held that nonviolence was the moral path to social
change, tactical nonviolence posited that nonviolent protests were more likely than violent protests to be successful.
Throughout the movement, both nonviolent direct action and armed self-defense were widely practiced.
“Before sitting-in, protesters practiced nonviolent tactics and
trained themselves to endure abuse and assault.” crmvet.org
Sit-ins targeting national
chain stores like Woolworth’s,
Kress, and Walgreen’s
allowed protesters and their
allies to amplify their
demands by staging parallel
demonstrations and boycotts
at multiple locations
throughout the country.
Moreover, winning policy
changes from a national chain
could have far greater effects
than a victory at a locally-
owned store with only one or
two locations.
The Nashville Student Movement
Led by Fisk University students including Diane Nash and John Lewis, the Nashville sit-in
movement lasted from February 13 to May 10, 1960.
“Students busted for protesting segregation fill the
Nashville jail to overflowing.”
“Gasping for breath, James Bevel and John Lewis
are trapped inside a Nashville restaurant filled with
insecticide gas when the manager turns on a
fumigating machine to disrupt a sit-in.”
Source: https://www.crmvet.org/images/imgcoll.htm
“C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash, and
Bernard LaFayette lead protest
march in Nashville, 1960.”
crmvet.org
During this confrontation, Nash
recalled asking, “Mayor West, do you
feel it is wrong to discriminate against
a person solely on the basis of their
race or color?” West later recalled,
“They asked me some pretty soul-
searching questions—and one that was
addressed to me as a man. And I found
that I had to answer it frankly and
honestly—that I did not agree that it
was morally right for someone to sell
them merchandise and refuse them
service. And I had to answer it just
exactly like that.”
“C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash, and sit-in leaders confront the Mayor”
(19 Apr 1960).
John Lewis (1940 - 2020)
John Lewis was a central leader of the student
movement in Nashville, Tennessee, where he
attended American Baptist Seminary before
entering Fisk University. In eulogizing Lewis in
2020, President Barack Obama explained, “He
and other young men and women sat at a
segregated lunch counter, well-dressed, straight-
backed, refusing to let a milkshake poured on
their heads, or a cigarette extinguished on their
backs, or a foot aimed at their ribs…dent their
dignity and their sense of purpose. And after a
few months, the Nashville campaign achieved the
first successful desegregation of public facilities
in any major city in the South. John got a taste of
jail for the first, second, third … well, several
times. But he also got a taste of victory. And it
consumed him with righteous purpose. And he
took the battle deeper into the South.”
Significance: Sit-Ins as Direct Action
• “Direct action” refers to the use of public demonstrations such as sit-ins, pickets,
marches, and other forms of visible protest rather than negotiation as a means of
achieving social change.
• Channeled power of national media (esp. the rising medium of television),
utilizing disruptive means to bring national and international attention to Jim Crow
oppression in the South.
• Black college students and other demonstrators utilized the tactic of nonviolent
civil disobedience and the “politics of respectability” to win concessions. Students
were trained not to respond to aggression or antagonism by police, store
management, or crowds. In some cases, protesters were harassed, attacked, or
even arrested, typically on charges of disturbing the “peace.”
• Sit-ins chiefly targeted national chain stores (e.g. Woolworth’s, Kress, Walgreen’s)
where Black customers were able to spend their money but were denied service at
the lunch counter. National chains could be targeted with boycotts or
demonstrations by movement allies and sympathizers outside the South as well.
• Student lunch counter sit-ins signaled the emergence of a new “direct action”
phase of the movement, as well as the rise of student activism, which would be a
key political force in the 1960s.
Ella Baker
(1903-1986)
• Born in Virginia and raised in North Carolina; attended Shaw
University in Raleigh.
• Grew up hearing stories about the abuses of white supremacy during
slavery, including the story of her grandmother who was savagely
whipped for refusing to marry the man chosen by her enslaver.
• Spent more than a decade organizing in New York; joined the
NAACP and played key roles as a field secretary and then as director
of branches, travelling to some of the most segregated parts of the
country to recruit members. Frustrated by the NAACP’s gradual
approach and focus on litigation, as well as its view of leadership as
concentrated in the hands of Black elites.
• A founding member of the SCLC with King; played key roles in
mentoring Rosa Parks during the bus boycott and in leading the
SCLC in Atlanta during its early years.
• Objected to SCLC’s vision of leadership as “top down,” with ideas
and plans generated only by central leadership rather than coming
from the communities and people ensnared in oppressive systems.
Baker argued, “Oppressed people, whatever their level of formal
education, have the ability to understand and interpret the world
around them, to see the world for what it is and move to transform it.”
Baker famously remarked on the manner in which the nationally-recognized Black male
leadership of the movement underappreciated or even resented the input and contributions of
Black women. “Martin wasn’t good at receiving critical questions,” Baker recalled in 1974.
“He was not alone; this was a pattern with ministers. After all, who was I? I was female; I
was old. I didn’t have any Ph.D.” She pointedly noted that a civil rights movement was
bound to happen, even without King:
“The movement made Martin, not Martin the movement.”
Reflecting on the nature of “participatory democracy,” Baker noted, “You didn’t see me
on television; you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play
was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might
come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
SNCC Founded at Shaw University
(April 1960)
After college students began sitting in at lunch counters in
February 1960, Baker, then 56 years old, convinced King to
fund a conference at her alma mater bringing together
young activists from across the country to coordinate their
efforts to combat segregation and white supremacy. Baker
became a crucial mentor for the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”), the
new organization that emerged from the conference. SNCC
represented the formal entrance of young people into the
movement. Baker strongly urged SNCC to chart its own
path outside King’s influence, and instilled in SNCC
organizers a value for the hard, slow, and unglamorous
work of community organizing: knocking on doors, holding
meetings, answering phones, writing letters, and myriad
other tasks not covered by the news media but crucial to the
work of social change.
Soon after its founding, SNCC began publishing a regular
newsletter reporting on movement news and documenting
acts of racist aggression and violence, some of which it
noted were in response to its work.
The first issue of The Student Voice published its
“statement of purpose,” drafted at the Raleigh conference.
This statement explicated the philosophy of nonviolence,
a worldview that “seeks a social order of justice
permeated by love.”
Ella Baker, “Bigger than a Hamburger” (May 1960)
In an article in The Southern Patriot, Baker summarized the remarks she made at the founding conference of
SNCC the previous month:
The Student Leadership Conference made it crystal clear that current sit-ins and other demonstrations are
concerned with something much bigger than a hamburger or even a giant-sized Coke.
Whatever may be the difference in approach to their goal, the Negro and white students, North and South,
are seeking to rid America of the scourge of racial segregation and discrimination — not only at lunch
counters, but in every aspect of life.
In reports, casual conversations, discussion groups, and speeches, the sense and the spirit of the following
statement that appeared in the initial newsletter of the students at Barber-Scotia College, Concord, N.C.,
were re-echoed time and again:
“We want the world to know that we no longer accept the inferior position of second-class
citizenship. We are willing to go to jail, be ridiculed, spat upon and even suffer physical violence
to obtain First Class Citizenship.”
By and large, this feeling that they have a destined date with freedom, was not limited to a drive for
personal freedom, or even freedom for the Negro in the South. Repeatedly it was emphasized that the
movement was concerned with the moral implications of racial discrimination for the “whole world” and
the “Human Race.”
This universality of approach was linked with a perceptive recognition that “it is important to keep the
movement democratic and to avoid struggles for personal leadership.” (cont’d)
Baker, “Bigger than a Hamburger” (cont’d)
It was further evident that desire for supportive cooperation from adult leaders and the adult
community was also tempered by apprehension that adults might try to “capture” the student
movement. The students showed willingness to be met on the basis of equality, but were
intolerant of anything that smacked of manipulation or domination.
This inclination toward group-centered leadership, rather than toward a leader-centered group pattern of
organization, was refreshing indeed to those of the older group who bear the scars of the battle, the
frustrations and the disillusionment that come when the prophetic leader turns out to have heavy feet of
clay.
However hopeful might be the signs in the direction of group-centeredness, the fact that many schools and
communities, especially in the South, have not provided adequate experience for young Negroes to assume
initiative and think and act independently accentuated the need for guarding the student movement against
well-meaning, but nevertheless unhealthy, over-protectiveness.
Here is an opportunity for adult and youth to work together and provide genuine leadership — the
development of the individual to his highest potential for the benefit of the group.
Many adults and youth characterized the Raleigh meeting as the greatest or most significant
conference of our period.
Whether it lives up to this high evaluation or not will, in a large measure, be determined by the extent to
which there is more effective training in and understanding of non-violent principles and practices, in group
dynamics, and in the re-direction into creative channels of the normal frustrations and hostilities that result
from second-class citizenship.

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2.1.24 Student Activism, Sit-ins, and the Rise of SNCC.pptx

  • 2. • NAACP (est. 1909 after Illinois race riot)—Interracial coalition working within system to advocate for legal change; greatest victory was Brown decision. • NUL (est. 1910 to address social dislocation among Black Southern migrants at onset of the Great Migration)—Focused on concerns of urban life, i.e. housing conditions, integration, social programs, and socioeconomic opportunities. • CORE (est. 1943)—Sought to apply principles of nonviolence in struggle against segregation; major role in Freedom Rides and the March on Washington. • SCLC (est. 1957)—Formed and led by King after the Montgomery bus boycott to organize Black ministers and leaders in support of nonviolent direct action. Initially focused on desegregation in the South. • SNCC (pronounced “Snick,” est. 1960)—Emerged from student sit-ins aiming to harness energies of youth; major roles in sit-ins, Freedom Rides, March on Washington, MS Freedom Summer, MFDP; ultimately shifted focus from desegregation to fieldwork and community organizing, esp. in MS, AL, and GA. The “Big Five” Civil Rights Organizations
  • 3. Student Sit-ins (beg. Feb 1960) On February 1, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil, students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, sat down at the segregated lunch counter of a Woolworth’s store in the city of Greensboro to demand service. Their act quickly inspired similar protests throughout the South, sparking the direct action phase of the civil rights movement and ushering in the student movement of the 1960s.
  • 4.
  • 5. Sit-in at Cherrydale Drug Fair, Arlington, Virginia (June 1960).
  • 6. Sit-in at Woolworth’s, Atlanta, Georgia (October 1960).
  • 7. Sit-in at Woolworth’s, Jackson, Mississippi (May 1963).
  • 8. “As a young man, the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. began leading workshops on the principles of nonviolent resistance.” (Source: Vanderbilt University Special Collections and University Archives) James Lawson (1928 - ) For months prior to the launch of student sit-ins in Greensboro, Rev. James Lawson had been working with students in Nashville, Tennessee, running workshops and practicing nonviolent direct action as a tactic for achieving social change. Lawson had studied Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolence in India, and was convinced by Dr. King to move from Ohio to focus on dismantling segregation in the South. As a result of his activism, he was expelled from the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University in 1960. Lawson was a guiding figure of the Nashville Student Movement and a leading proponent of philosophical nonviolence. His students included John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and Marion Barry, among many others.
  • 9. Tactical Nonviolence As a tactic, nonviolent direct action anticipated aggression on the part of segregationists and law enforcement, and it trained demonstrators not to respond. The success of tactical nonviolence relied on the presence of cameras and onlookers to protect practitioners from the most brutal forms of violence. It required discipline and courage, as nonviolent protesters had to believe that in demonstrating their strength and convictions, the righteousness of their demands would be evident. While philosophical nonviolence held that nonviolence was the moral path to social change, tactical nonviolence posited that nonviolent protests were more likely than violent protests to be successful. Throughout the movement, both nonviolent direct action and armed self-defense were widely practiced. “Before sitting-in, protesters practiced nonviolent tactics and trained themselves to endure abuse and assault.” crmvet.org
  • 10. Sit-ins targeting national chain stores like Woolworth’s, Kress, and Walgreen’s allowed protesters and their allies to amplify their demands by staging parallel demonstrations and boycotts at multiple locations throughout the country. Moreover, winning policy changes from a national chain could have far greater effects than a victory at a locally- owned store with only one or two locations.
  • 11. The Nashville Student Movement Led by Fisk University students including Diane Nash and John Lewis, the Nashville sit-in movement lasted from February 13 to May 10, 1960.
  • 12. “Students busted for protesting segregation fill the Nashville jail to overflowing.” “Gasping for breath, James Bevel and John Lewis are trapped inside a Nashville restaurant filled with insecticide gas when the manager turns on a fumigating machine to disrupt a sit-in.” Source: https://www.crmvet.org/images/imgcoll.htm
  • 13. “C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash, and Bernard LaFayette lead protest march in Nashville, 1960.” crmvet.org
  • 14. During this confrontation, Nash recalled asking, “Mayor West, do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” West later recalled, “They asked me some pretty soul- searching questions—and one that was addressed to me as a man. And I found that I had to answer it frankly and honestly—that I did not agree that it was morally right for someone to sell them merchandise and refuse them service. And I had to answer it just exactly like that.” “C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash, and sit-in leaders confront the Mayor” (19 Apr 1960).
  • 15.
  • 16. John Lewis (1940 - 2020) John Lewis was a central leader of the student movement in Nashville, Tennessee, where he attended American Baptist Seminary before entering Fisk University. In eulogizing Lewis in 2020, President Barack Obama explained, “He and other young men and women sat at a segregated lunch counter, well-dressed, straight- backed, refusing to let a milkshake poured on their heads, or a cigarette extinguished on their backs, or a foot aimed at their ribs…dent their dignity and their sense of purpose. And after a few months, the Nashville campaign achieved the first successful desegregation of public facilities in any major city in the South. John got a taste of jail for the first, second, third … well, several times. But he also got a taste of victory. And it consumed him with righteous purpose. And he took the battle deeper into the South.”
  • 17. Significance: Sit-Ins as Direct Action • “Direct action” refers to the use of public demonstrations such as sit-ins, pickets, marches, and other forms of visible protest rather than negotiation as a means of achieving social change. • Channeled power of national media (esp. the rising medium of television), utilizing disruptive means to bring national and international attention to Jim Crow oppression in the South. • Black college students and other demonstrators utilized the tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience and the “politics of respectability” to win concessions. Students were trained not to respond to aggression or antagonism by police, store management, or crowds. In some cases, protesters were harassed, attacked, or even arrested, typically on charges of disturbing the “peace.” • Sit-ins chiefly targeted national chain stores (e.g. Woolworth’s, Kress, Walgreen’s) where Black customers were able to spend their money but were denied service at the lunch counter. National chains could be targeted with boycotts or demonstrations by movement allies and sympathizers outside the South as well. • Student lunch counter sit-ins signaled the emergence of a new “direct action” phase of the movement, as well as the rise of student activism, which would be a key political force in the 1960s.
  • 18. Ella Baker (1903-1986) • Born in Virginia and raised in North Carolina; attended Shaw University in Raleigh. • Grew up hearing stories about the abuses of white supremacy during slavery, including the story of her grandmother who was savagely whipped for refusing to marry the man chosen by her enslaver. • Spent more than a decade organizing in New York; joined the NAACP and played key roles as a field secretary and then as director of branches, travelling to some of the most segregated parts of the country to recruit members. Frustrated by the NAACP’s gradual approach and focus on litigation, as well as its view of leadership as concentrated in the hands of Black elites. • A founding member of the SCLC with King; played key roles in mentoring Rosa Parks during the bus boycott and in leading the SCLC in Atlanta during its early years. • Objected to SCLC’s vision of leadership as “top down,” with ideas and plans generated only by central leadership rather than coming from the communities and people ensnared in oppressive systems. Baker argued, “Oppressed people, whatever their level of formal education, have the ability to understand and interpret the world around them, to see the world for what it is and move to transform it.”
  • 19. Baker famously remarked on the manner in which the nationally-recognized Black male leadership of the movement underappreciated or even resented the input and contributions of Black women. “Martin wasn’t good at receiving critical questions,” Baker recalled in 1974. “He was not alone; this was a pattern with ministers. After all, who was I? I was female; I was old. I didn’t have any Ph.D.” She pointedly noted that a civil rights movement was bound to happen, even without King: “The movement made Martin, not Martin the movement.”
  • 20. Reflecting on the nature of “participatory democracy,” Baker noted, “You didn’t see me on television; you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
  • 21. SNCC Founded at Shaw University (April 1960) After college students began sitting in at lunch counters in February 1960, Baker, then 56 years old, convinced King to fund a conference at her alma mater bringing together young activists from across the country to coordinate their efforts to combat segregation and white supremacy. Baker became a crucial mentor for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”), the new organization that emerged from the conference. SNCC represented the formal entrance of young people into the movement. Baker strongly urged SNCC to chart its own path outside King’s influence, and instilled in SNCC organizers a value for the hard, slow, and unglamorous work of community organizing: knocking on doors, holding meetings, answering phones, writing letters, and myriad other tasks not covered by the news media but crucial to the work of social change. Soon after its founding, SNCC began publishing a regular newsletter reporting on movement news and documenting acts of racist aggression and violence, some of which it noted were in response to its work.
  • 22. The first issue of The Student Voice published its “statement of purpose,” drafted at the Raleigh conference. This statement explicated the philosophy of nonviolence, a worldview that “seeks a social order of justice permeated by love.”
  • 23. Ella Baker, “Bigger than a Hamburger” (May 1960) In an article in The Southern Patriot, Baker summarized the remarks she made at the founding conference of SNCC the previous month: The Student Leadership Conference made it crystal clear that current sit-ins and other demonstrations are concerned with something much bigger than a hamburger or even a giant-sized Coke. Whatever may be the difference in approach to their goal, the Negro and white students, North and South, are seeking to rid America of the scourge of racial segregation and discrimination — not only at lunch counters, but in every aspect of life. In reports, casual conversations, discussion groups, and speeches, the sense and the spirit of the following statement that appeared in the initial newsletter of the students at Barber-Scotia College, Concord, N.C., were re-echoed time and again: “We want the world to know that we no longer accept the inferior position of second-class citizenship. We are willing to go to jail, be ridiculed, spat upon and even suffer physical violence to obtain First Class Citizenship.” By and large, this feeling that they have a destined date with freedom, was not limited to a drive for personal freedom, or even freedom for the Negro in the South. Repeatedly it was emphasized that the movement was concerned with the moral implications of racial discrimination for the “whole world” and the “Human Race.” This universality of approach was linked with a perceptive recognition that “it is important to keep the movement democratic and to avoid struggles for personal leadership.” (cont’d)
  • 24. Baker, “Bigger than a Hamburger” (cont’d) It was further evident that desire for supportive cooperation from adult leaders and the adult community was also tempered by apprehension that adults might try to “capture” the student movement. The students showed willingness to be met on the basis of equality, but were intolerant of anything that smacked of manipulation or domination. This inclination toward group-centered leadership, rather than toward a leader-centered group pattern of organization, was refreshing indeed to those of the older group who bear the scars of the battle, the frustrations and the disillusionment that come when the prophetic leader turns out to have heavy feet of clay. However hopeful might be the signs in the direction of group-centeredness, the fact that many schools and communities, especially in the South, have not provided adequate experience for young Negroes to assume initiative and think and act independently accentuated the need for guarding the student movement against well-meaning, but nevertheless unhealthy, over-protectiveness. Here is an opportunity for adult and youth to work together and provide genuine leadership — the development of the individual to his highest potential for the benefit of the group. Many adults and youth characterized the Raleigh meeting as the greatest or most significant conference of our period. Whether it lives up to this high evaluation or not will, in a large measure, be determined by the extent to which there is more effective training in and understanding of non-violent principles and practices, in group dynamics, and in the re-direction into creative channels of the normal frustrations and hostilities that result from second-class citizenship.

Editor's Notes

  1. Civil rights sit-in by John Salter, Joan Trumpauer, and Anne Moody at Woolworth's lunch counter in Jackson, MS. An angry crowd pours sugar, ketchup, and mustard on them (23 May 1963).
  2. Activists would often undergo tolerance training to prepare themselves for what they might encounter during a sit-in. Here, NAACP student adviser David Gunter, left, and Leroy Hill blow smoke into the face of Virginius Thornton. Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
  3. C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash, and sit-in leaders confront the Mayor. https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/civil-rights-act/multimedia/nashville-city-hall-confrontation.html#:~:text=Diane%20Nash%20(b.,White%20Paper%3A%20Sit%2DIn.
  4. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2020/02/27/nashville-civil-rights-protests-lunch-counter-sit-ins-john-lewis-arrested/4806564002/
  5. https://www.theattic.space/home-page-blogs/2021/6/24/786qs5w195sxcwyqp6jsim6eoi0nkd https://time.com/4633460/mlk-day-ella-baker/
  6. reverse image search
  7. https://www.crmvet.org/docs/sncc2.htm