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The Woolworth’s Sit-ins and Their Impact, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

One of the most significant moments in the civil rights movement actually began on a simple dare. On January 31, 1960, four African-American students from the University of Greensboro NC decided to do something to protest segregation, and staged a sit-in at the local Woolworth’s lunch counter. Woolworth’s, like many restaurants and other businesses in the U.S., was segregated, and only white people were allowed to sit at the counter. By daring each other to violate the segregation rule, these four young men changed the course of American history.

The following day, February 1, the four freshmen, Ezell Blair, Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil, went to the local Woolworth’s and sat down at the lunch counter. The young men had already arranged for bail money to be available, as they not only expected to be refused service, they also expected to be arrested (Kowal, 135) . While they did not have to deal with the police, the restaurant manager did refuse them service. When they remained in their seats, the manager decided to close the counter. Over the coming weeks, more and more sit-ins would be staged at Woolworth’s and other segregated restaurants around the region. In some cases white students would join their African-American counterparts at the sit-ins.

This was not the first sit-in, as other similar events had occurred throughout the United States. In many cases, those protestors had been arrested, and the sit-ins had little impact. The Greensboro sit-ins, however, had a much greater impact. Over the summer of 1960, the Greensboro Woolworth’s finally abandoned segregation at their lunch counter. This small victory in the civil rights battle would have enormous consequences, and served to begin a domino effect around the nation, as one after another segregated establishment began to serve African-Americans alongside white patrons. As a result of these protests, the Student executive Committee for Justice (SECJ) was formed, which would become a driving force in the civil rights movement (Kowal, 136).

The route to victory in this battle was not easy, however. The first protestors were not arrested, but they were still refused service. As the protests grew, businesses throughout the downtown Greensboro area were targeted, and the numbers of protestors grew (Herr, 72). By the Spring of 1990, hundreds of protestors were converging on local businesses, and hundreds of white people began to protest the protestors, taunting them with name-calling and even threats of violence. For the most part violence was avoided, but in one instance, 45 protestors were arrested (Kowal, 136). This did not deter the protestors, however, and hundreds of African-Americans and many white students organized a boycott of these businesses. Some establishments saw steep declines in their profits, as black patrons boycotted and protested, and white patrons often avoided the area in order to avoid the protests and the protestors (Kowal, 136). It was only after their bottom lines were so gravely affected that Woolworth’s and other area establishments finally relented and ended their polices of segregation.

The Greensboro sit-ins had an enormous impact both in the region and around the country. Those involved in the civil rights movement saw how non-violent protests could serve to create change in segregation policies through direct action.  Boycotts were effective in putting pressure on a business’s bottom line, but sit-ins and other similar actions created even more pressure because the protestors were visible and out in the open. These protest forced people to take the protests and the protestors seriously, and helped to spark a wave of activity in the civil rights movement that would eventually results in the desegregation of the entire nation. Another factor that helped the protestors get out their message was that television had become widely used throughout the United States. Media outlets across the country began to broadcast footage of these protests and sit-ins, so people who might otherwise be unaffected or not even aware of them were now able to see them. This visibility for the protestors helped to spread their message beyond their immediate area and to people around the country, sparking conversations and discussions about civil rights that might otherwise never have happened (Sloan, Parcell; 288).

The first sit-in, on February 1, 1960, was not a spontaneous event. The protestors had planned their actions, and were purposefully well-dressed and polite as they sat at the counter at Woolworth’s. This approach to the sit-ins influenced other protestors around the country, and many adopted the same tactics. As word spread of the sit-ins, other businesses of different types were targeted, and what began as a planned event gave rise to spontaneous protests around the country. African-Americans began to protest at movie theaters, theme parks, public libraries, and many other public and private organizations that either refused to serve African-Americans or who forced them into segregated areas (Kowal, 136).

The original four protestors formed the SECJ as a means of exerting some control over the growing protest movement. They drafted several letters that they released to the media as a way of getting their message out. One of these letters contained the following passage:

We must remember that we are now well known in the eyes of the world and we must do nothing to neither hurt the chances of the minority races nor rob the people who sympathize with us of the loyal support they are giving us. Again may we strongly advocate, NO VIOLENCE  NOR DRINKING WHILE WE ARE DOWN TOWN OR IN THE EYES OF THE PUBLIC. We know that we will receive your loyal support in our drive for justice and we hope that you will weigh this letter carefully and cooperate fully. (SECJ 1960)

The SECJ members even went so far as to make suggestions about how protestors should dress, and released scripts that contained suggestions about how to speak to waitresses and other servers during sit-ins and protests. They felt it was important to ensure that protestors were well-groomed and polite, and that they avoided confrontation with hecklers and counter-protestors when conducting sit-ins. While they could not always control what other protestors did, their suggestions were taken seriously by many in the civil rights movement, and their approach to well-organized, non-violent protests influenced the entire civil rights movement. By adopting these tactics of non-violence, those involved in the civil rights movement were able to make a strong case for their causes without having their message lost in the mess that would be created if they engaged in violence (Kowal, 137).

While the Greensboro sit-in was not the first of its kind, it had a greater impact than those which came before it. There is no doubt that without the actions of the media, the protest would not have been as significant as they were. The Greensboro sit-ins were important not just because of the effect they had on local and regional businesses, but because the media was there to see the protests, and to spread their message around the country and around the world (Sloan, Parcell; 289). The efforts of the SECJ members to control the way protest were conducted was fairly effective, and hundreds or even thousands of other protestors around the country took the same non-violent approach. That does not mean that the protest were entirely non-violent, but much of the violence that did occur stared with white-counter protestors who sometimes attacked African-American protestors. Some of these protestors were spit on, had eggs thrown at them, and were even attacked with fists and kicks (Kowal, 137). It was not just the protestors that were seen on televisions around the country, it was also these counter-protestors.

It was this combination of factors that helped to shape the civil rights movement, and helped to slowly change the views of many Americans about civil rights. Without the actions of the Woolworth’s protestors being broadcast by the media, the message may have taken much longer to get out. And without the Greensboro protestors insisting on a non-violent approach, the message that did get out may not have helped the cause. History has shown that these four young men who courageously stood up to their local Woolworth’s on that fateful day were lighting a fuse that would eventually bring down segregation in the U.S. There were many more protests and confrontations to come, of course, but the actions of these young men were in many ways the spark that would burn down the walls separating African-Americans from the rest of the country.

Works Cited

Herr, Melody. Sitting for Equal Service: Lunch Counter Sit-ins, United States, 1960s. Twenty-First Century Books. Minneapolis, MN. 2011.

Kowal, Rebekah. Staging the Greensboro Sit-ins. The Drama Review. Vol. 48 N 4. Winter 2004.

Sloan, William David;  Parcell, Lisa Mullikin. American Journalism: History, Principles, Practices. McFarland & Company Publishers. Jefferson, NC. 2002.

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