James West Davidson, After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection details a lot of essential events throughout American history from the founding of the nation, the Great depression and the Dust Bowl, to the events that led to the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War. Davidson provides a historical retrospective view that looks into more detail about the several accounts given by historians. In any event, there are two sides to every story, the truth and then that person’s truth. Events that have happened in the past before the technology of tape recordings and computers have to rely on the information provided from people who were there to document it. As a historian Davidson felt that it was his duty to provide illustrations of the concepts he sought to describe as in the subtitle implies, he chose to approach each chapter (event) with an art of “detection” technique in order to deeply analyze and reconstruct events in history. Within Davidson’s book, he proposes a series of questions in order to perceive a different outlook on the events that transpired in Greensboro, North Caroline, the purpose of this essay is to answer his questions with the aid of his literary context.
West questions that he proposes are, “Why did the sit-ins in Greensboro trigger this outburst of activism when earlier demonstrations did not?” Was Greensboro really spontaneous, as many observers and historians first thought? And does the response to it support the notion that discontinuity rather than continuity defines the process of change over time?” (Davidson, Lytle, Pg. X, 2010) The Civil Rights Movement was a pivotal event that not only changed the lives of African Americans, but women, and other minorities in the United States. Sparked as a result of the Jim Crow error after the abolishment of slavery, the rights of African Americans, were moving at a slow pace. Particularly in the south the states were deeply divided, and African Americans were heavily discriminated and segregated from doing the same activities as their white counterparts. In the 1950’s at the height of racial tension in the south, African Americans and others decided that there needed to be a change in the treatment of African Americans. Notable figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, and others spearheaded the movement. Change began to happen as the movement progressed, especially in the judicial system as Brown vs. Board of Education ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. Although there was progress, there was still violence and strategy as in the case of Emmitt Till reminded of the brutality of the racial divide in the south. Civil Rights activists pressed on. The arrest of NAACP member Rosa Parks after her refusal to give up her front seat on the bus helped them receive momentum that launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott that desegregated the buses. More importantly the movement brought one of the most famous and notable activist of our generation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped began to organize the Civil Rights movement through non-violence and civil disobedience. The change in the organization of the movement helped influence others to apply non-violence methods in a manner of protest. In particular, the case of the Greensboro Sit-Ins is what helped create the eruption of protests within the south that members of the NAACP were pushing for. When four students from North Carolina A&T begin a sit-in at an all-white lunch counter in Greensboro’s Woolworth store. Even though, the sit-ins were been demonstrated in other parts of the United States these particular Greensboro sit-ins catalyzed a wave of nonviolent protest counter to the southern segregation that prevalent in the United States.
In answering West question, the first sit-in at Greensboro’s Woolworth was not spontaneous as the four students had planned to stage the protest after reading about the nonviolent protest happening. In particularly one of the four, Ezell Blair had recently seen the documentary on the life of Gandhi and another was close with members that participated in the freedom rides. “The real question, they agreed, was what should be done to bring an end to Jim
Crow, the system of racial segregation that stigmatized all black Americans as second-class citizens?” (Davidson, Pg. 367, 2011) They were trying to figure out a way for them to end the Jim Crow era segregation and devised the meticulous plan to execute the first sit-in. They went to Woolworth’s and brought items and approach the lunch counter in courteously manner to request service. Despite urbanely requesting service the waitress refused to serve them, the manager asked them to leave, and they politely declined. The manager then went to the local authorities who refused to intervene as he felt that they were not doing anything wrong. The came back the next day with more, even though they did not respond to the violence acted on them from white patrons and students, they remained nonviolent. They were eventually jailed and release, just to protest more with over 90% of their school participating in the sit-ins. Their sit-ins inspired others all around the country, even members of the NAACP including MLK got involved in the sit-ins, and they created the SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who played a crucial role in the organization of other sit-ins and the freedom rides. As a result of the success of the sit-ins they were able to erode the laws of the Jim Crow era. Woolworth’s eventually closed down after their failure to run their business after all the sit-ins that occurred within their store. Soon they were desegregating not only their lunch counter but their other Woolworth’s locations, and public places.
The success of the Greensboro Four was unlike other tactics that activists had tried in explaining, why it took off West provides a quote from an African American journalist during those times, “Negroes all over America,” he observed, “knew . . . that the spontaneous and uncorrelated student demonstrations were more than an attack on segregation: they were proof that the Negro leadership class, epitomized by the NAACP was no longer the prime mover of the Negro’s social revolt.” (Davidson, Lytle, Pg. 371, 2010) Within his quote, he pointed out that their unprompted attempt act attacking the segregated system within the United States was to show that people particularly students were wanting a change without the aided assistance of a larger organization just themselves trying to make a difference.
West last question posed was over the continuity versus discontinuity, and in answering the events of Greensboro sit-ins supports the notion of discontinuity rather than continuity process of change over time. In that fact, continuity follows that life follows a continuous path without any discreet or abrupt changes. In the case of the history of America, the plight of African Americans were following on a continuous path of discrimination and segregation that began since they were brought on slave ships during slavery. However, the discontinuous actions of activists, ordinary people, and student (Greensboro Four) helped to significantly break the continuous path in nature in order to bring a change in the development of the human movement. The discontinuous change help to overthrow the old system in place, i.e. Jim Crow laws, and help to enact movement that forced changed on all levels of government and within society to grant African Americans their rights to equal treatment in all facets of society, including at the lunch counter. Their events drastically altered the history and built a domino effect that others built on in order to progress the Civil Rights Movement.
Davidson, James West. Lytle, Mark. After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. McGraw-Hill Higher Education. 2011.