Nonviolent Direct Action at Southern Lunch Counters
by Sean O'Mara
On February 1, 1960, four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina, walked into a Woolworth’s store and quietly sat down at the lunch counter. This seemingly mundane, everyday act sent shock waves through Greensboro, through North Carolina, and through the nation. The counter at which these four young men sat was for whites only.
This simple act was like a stone thrown into a still pond. It sent out ripples across the nation that stirred people to take notice and to act. As the news of lunch counter sit-ins spread, it opened eyes, inspired more to join the protests, and agitated some Americans into violence. Most importantly, it forced communities throughout the United States to confront segregation right where they sat down for a cup of coffee or a sandwich.
The sit-ins were a part of the nonviolent direct action strategy espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1955, nonviolent direct action had been successfully used in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Led by Dr. King and Rosa Parks, the black citizens of Montgomery had desegregated the city’s public buses. In the early 1960s, black college students throughout the South would put this strategy of nonviolent protest into action in an attempt to desegregate lunch counters.
What is nonviolent direct action? How and why was it used in the fight for civil rights and against segregation? Should civil rights workers be considered American heroes?
- Picture of the Greensboro Four, Library of Congress
1960 Greensboro lunch counter sit-in news articles (all from SitIns.com):
- February 2 (transcript)
- February 4
- February 8
- February 10
- February 24
- Sit-in Articles Note-Taking Chart (PDF)
- Picture of lunch-counter sit-in Jackson, Mississippi, 1963, Civil Rights Movement Veterans (Scroll to middle of page.)
- "Sitting In in Mississippi, 1963," excerpt from Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi, with questions (PDF)
- Excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King’s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," with questions (PDF)
- 1960s Lunch Counter Sit-ins: Concluding Assignment (PDF)
Post the following questions on the chalkboard or overhead projector and have students write down their responses:
- Who are your heroes?
- What have these people done to deserve the label "hero"?
Display picture of the Greensboro Four (linked above).
Explain that because these four students sat down to order lunch in 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King said that we should recognize them as heroes.
Ask students to speculate about why sitting at this counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 might make them heroes.
Divide the class into groups of three or four.
Read aloud the Greensboro sit-in article from February 2, 1960. After reading, have the students identify the who, what, where, when, and why referenced in the article. These should be posted on the chalkboard.
Assign one of the four sit-in news articles of February 4–24, 1960, to each student in each group. In turn, following the chronological order of the articles, each student should read his or her article aloud. After each article is read, ask the students to work as a team to record the positive and negative information and/or reactions related to the sit-ins mentioned in the news that day. This information should be recorded on the Sit-In Articles Note-taking Chart.
Once all groups have completed this activity, findings for each of the articles should be shared with the class as a whole.
Ask the students to respond to the questions listed below. This can be done as an informal group discussion, or each student can write a formal response to the questions before the class discussion.
- Based on the articles from February, who or what was responsible for the segregation of Woolworth lunch counters in Greensboro?
- Based on the articles, what were some of the positive effects of the publicity given to the sit-ins?
- Based on the information from the articles from February 4–24, would you call the Greensboro sit-ins a success? Why or why not?
Display the picture of the 1963 lunch-counter sit-in in Jackson, Mississippi (linked above). Explain to the students that their homework will be to read a firsthand account of this sit-in written by one of the participants—a woman named Anne Moody, who was a college student in Jackson in 1963.
Distribute "Sitting In in Mississippi" by Anne Moody and the related questions. Tell the students that besides reading the excerpt, the second part of their homework assignment is to answer the questions.
Ask the whole class to discuss their responses to the reading and questions from the previous night’s homework assignment.
Explain that the students involved in the Greensboro and Jackson sit-ins were following the nonviolent direct-action strategy espoused by civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tell the class that King defended this strategy in a letter he wrote from a Birmingham, Alabama, jail cell.
Read aloud excerpts from "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Students should read along and then write answers to the questions that follow the excerpts.
Discuss student responses to the questions.
Use student answers to the second question to generate a class definition of nonviolent direct action. Post this definition on the chalkboard.
Display the picture of the 1963 Jackson, Mississippi, lunch-counter sit and ask students to verbally answer the following questions:
- How does the picture illustrate nonviolent direct action? Explain.
- How does the picture illustrate tension? Explain.
- Did the students in the picture achieve the immediate, short-term goal of nonviolent direct action? Explain.
Ask students to complete the 1960s Lunch-Counter Sit-Ins: Concluding Assignment (attached above) as homework.
- Ask students to brainstorm a list of ways that nonviolent direct action could be implemented to combat a problem in today’s world, perhaps even in their own community.
- Ask students where in today’s world are people engaging in nonviolent direct action. One answer, for example, might be the recent protest marches and economic boycotts of immigrant activists.
- Ask students to consider whether the actions of the protestors at the lunch counter left an enduring legacy for the protest movement. Ask students if they think protestors today would be willing to submit themselves to the abuse suffered by student protesters in the 1960s.