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Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-In

What’s the Main Idea?

Object Description

Biography: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

Probing Further

Lunch Counter Sit-in, Greensboro, North Carolina, 1960
Lunch Counter Sit-in,
Greensboro, North Carolina, 1960

New York World-Telegram & Sun Photograph Collection

Prints and Photographs Division

What's the Main Idea?

Object Description

In 1960 four freshmen from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro walked into the F. W. Woolworth store and quietly sat down at the lunch counter. They were refused service, but they stayed until closing time. The next morning they came with twenty-five more students. On the third day, sixty-three students joined the sit-in. On the following day, the students were joined by three white female students from the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina, and by the fifth day Woolworth had more than three hundred demonstrators at the store. The next day the company said they were willing to negotiate, but only token changes were made. The students resumed their sit-ins, the city adopted more stringent segregation policies, and forty-five students were arrested and charged with trespassing. The students were so enraged by this that they launched a massive boycott of stores with segregated lunch counters. Sales dropped by a third, forcing the store owners to relent. Six months from the very first sit-in, the four freshmen returned and were served at Woolworth’s lunch counter.

Within a year similar peaceful demonstrations took place in over a hundred cities North and South. At Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, students formed their own organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”). The students’ bravery in the face of verbal and physical abuse led to integration in many stores even before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in April, 1960, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Ella Baker, then executive director of SCLC, (an organization that was primarily comprised of ministers who wanted to move beyond what some black organizations were already doing in the area of civil rights) believed that students and other young people needed their own civil rights organization. From its inception, SNCC was different from most other like-minded organizations in that its members believed in a less hierarchical, male-dominated structure, favoring instead group consensus in the decision making process. The group was originally comprised of both black and white college students who adopted Mahatma Gandhi's theories of non-violent direct action. Staging effective sit-ins throughout the South were one of the greatest successes that these students achieved.

John Lewis (now a Georgia Congressman) was elected SNCC's chairman in 1963, and his tenure signaled the start of the organization's most active period. Lewis firmly believed that members of SNCC should be actively involved in the cities within which they worked. SNCC members today are most remembered for their participation in The Mississippi Summer Project of 1964. This program involved four major civil rights groups, SNCC, SCLC, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE), under the umbrella of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). It was made up of hundreds of students, most of whom were white, and who had been recruited from various colleges around the country to spend a summer in Mississippi working with local blacks. The students helped register blacks to vote (their work encouraged and assisted in registering over 17,000 blacks to vote), taught in freedom schools (to counteract the inadequacy of the Mississippi education system for blacks), and taught blacks tactics for becoming freedom fighters. The Project's goal was to break the racist grip of fear and isolation on Mississippi by bringing the outside world there, including federal protection. The murders of three civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman on June 21, 1964, was a stunning and horrific reminder of the pervasiveness of discrimination and fear-tactics employed to perpetuate that system.

The 1966 election of Stokey Carmichael over Lewis for SNCC chairman marked a turn toward radicalization for the group; he rejected much of SNCC's white support and was frustrated with the slow progress of non-violent protests. Carmichael, famous for the "Black Power" anthem, felt that integration and non-violence were impossible given the times, and his extreme views alienated long-time SNCC activists; his tenure lasted for one year. Carmichael left the group and went on to join the Black Panther Party. The 1967 election of H. Rap Brown as SNCC chairman marked an even greater shift toward militarism in the group.

Probing Further

  1. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was organized by young men and women committed to ending racial discrimination and segregation. A massive boycott of stores with discriminating policies lead to a decisive victory--the integration of lunch counters. How was the boycott a powerful tool?

  2. Have you ever boycotted a particular store or company because of the company’s policy? For example, think about recent events surrounding a Denny's restaurant or an Eddie Bauer store. Or, have you ever boycotted buying a particular type of tuna, sneakers, or gasoline because of a company's practices? What were the issues surrounding your reasons to boycott?

  3. The fight to end racial subjugation began the moment Africans were forcibly brought to the colonies. Blacks secretly learned to read and write, an endeavor that could have cost them their lives had it been discovered. Frederick Douglass believed education was key in the fight to end slavery. How did Douglass use his newspaper, The North Star, as a form of resistance?

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