It’s Black History Month at The Fountain. Check out this true History of Americans seeking Equality at the Soda and Ice Cream Counters of America in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the 1950’s, Durham North Carolina was like most cities in the South: hot and segregated. At the time, the civil rights movement was already polarizing the nation, with the Montgomery bus boycotts in 1955 bringing to prominence such names as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. In Mississippi, the brutal murder of Emmett Till that same year became an archetype of the horrendous nature of southern racism at its most cruel. Amidst the violence and racial tension, Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in January 1957 and declared his commitment to nonviolence as the most effective methodology for the civil rights movement. The SCLC and King were to become iconic symbols of civil rights activism, and his nonviolent philosophy influenced many civil rights activists.
The lingering schism between the races was exemplified by the segregation of small businesses, schools, and other institutions. Because segregation was so prominent, it was the target for many civil rights campaigns during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1957, a small group of local blacks from Durham, North Carolina, organized to fight it in their hometown. Their target was the Royal Ice Cream Parlor, which had two entrances: one on Dowd street marked ‘White only’ and one on Roxboro street marked ‘Colored only.’
On June 23, Reverend Douglass Moore, who was a pastor at the local Asbury Temple Methodist Church, held a meeting to organize a small group of protesters for a sit-in at the ice cream parlor. Six members of the black community, Mary Elizabeth Clyburn, Claude Glenn, Jesse Gray, Vivian Jones, Virginia Williams and Melvin Willis who attended the church, agreed to be a part of Moore’s plan, which they planned to execute that same evening. At the time, two prominent black organizations in Durham, the Black Ministerial Alliance and the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs did not support the idea of a sit-in, but Moore and his six young followers were committed to their cause. When they left the church they had formulated a plan that they hoped would yield the most effective results: Instead of trying to enter through the door on Dowd street they would use the door on Roxboro street and pass through the divider that waitresses used to move between the white and black sections of the ice cream parlor. The protesters took this route and entered the white section where they seated themselves in two booths and waited to be served. The staff firmly refused. But the protesters continued to order ice cream until the manager told them to leave. To this demand, the protesters responded by ordering yet another round of ice cream until the manager threw up his hands and called the police.
When the police arrived, officers confronted the protesters in both booths and tried to compromise. They were told if they simply left now, the manager would not press charges and they would be free to carry on as if nothing had happened. The protesters, keeping calm amidst the chaos, explained to the police officers that they just wanted to be served some ice cream. Miffed as much as was the parlor’s manager, the police decided they had no choice but to arrest every one of the young protesters and haul them off to jail. There were seven arrests made on charges of trespassing that day, for which the coverage in Durham newspapers was mixed. The Carolinian, an African American publication based in Raleigh, printed the story on the front page, while other mainstream newspapers such as the Durham News and Observer downplayed the story’s significance.
In court the following day, the six protesters and Rev. Moore were found guilty by the judge of trespassing, and each was fined $10. However, the protesters were not ready to let that be the end of their struggle, as they hoped their actions would challenge the very constitutionality of the segregation law. They made an appeal to the Superior Court where attorney William Marsh, Jr., defended them before an all-white jury and a full courtroom. Virginia Williams, one of the protesters, recalls that the protesters were not offered seats in court but instead made to stand before a row of seated, white police officers. Presently, Marsh requested that the police officers give up their seats for his clients, and the officers did so ‘with an attitude,’ allowing Rev. Moore and the six young protesters to share the bench.
Although their plea was not guilty, the Superior Court judge ruled against them, and the protesters had to appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court. The Supreme Court was no more yielding, and ruled to uphold the charges against them. In one final attempt to make their voices heard, the protesters boldly appealed their case the U.S. Supreme Court, but it refused to hear the case on the grounds that the protesters rights had not actually been violated. On July 15, 1958, the protesters were fined a total of $433.25 and faced with the realization that despite their plight, segregation laws in Durham had not budged. Despite this, the Royal Ice Cream Parlor sits-in led to the first court case testing the legality of the segregation law, a pioneering event that may have paved the way for the widespread 1960 Greensboro sit-ins that were considered pivotal to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
In Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, Jim Crow laws were in widespread effect. Though the African-American Civil Rights Movement had led to some successful desegregation (notably within the school system thanks to Brown v. Board and Swann v. Charlotte), “separate but equal” was still the norm with respect to the vast majority of businesses in Greensboro, and the rest of the South.
On February 1, 1960, at 4:30 pm, Ezell Blair (now known as Jibreel Khazan), Franklin McCain, David Richmond, and Joseph McNeill – students at historically black Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina (NCA&T) – walked into the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro. They browsed the drugstore section of the store, and purchased a few toiletries each. The students then proceeded to sit at the lunch counter –a section of the store clearly marked “For Whites Only” – and waited to be served. Though they sat there without incident, and were not harassed, they also were not served. The manager of the store attempted to persuade them to leave, but could not. When Woolworth’s closed an hour later, the four students left quietly.
The next day, the four students returned, but this time they were accompanied by sixteen other NCA&T students, who sat at the lunch counter for most of midday. They were not served, though white customers sat and were served around them. That night, the four initial demonstrators mailed a letter to the President of Woolworth’s, asking politely but firmly that he end his company’s policy of discrimination. The demonstrators were almost immediately endorsed by the NAACP.
The sit-ins continued, with participants numbering more than 300 in less than a week. The Greensboro Record reported on February 2 that the students were “seeking luncheon counter service, and will increase their numbers daily until they get it.” Blair said in an interview that “Negro adults have been complacent and fearful… It is time for someone to wake up and change the situation… and we decided to start here.” The NCA&T football team began to turn out to demonstrate, partially in the hopes of warning off any hostile action by white dissenters, and the Congress of Racial Equality dispatched a field representative to help organize the demonstrations. The major newspapers in Greensboro, the Record and the Daily News, appeared to be solidly on the side of the black students – their editorials argued for the cause with vigor.
On February 6, a fake bomb threat was called into the Woolworth’s store. Shortly after, the store was closed in the interests of public safety, and all demonstrators were ushered out of the store. Both blacks and whites at Woolworth’s that day appeared to be relieved – the tensions inside the store were incredibly high, and it was stunning that there were no significant incidents. The lunch counters would remain closed for three weeks, though the rest of the store re-opened on February 8. When the counter re-opened, there was no sign indicating that service was to be segregated.
A temporary truce seemed to exist between the storeowners and the demonstrators. When the counters reopened, there was no disruption of service – the students had turned to negotiating with the storeowners and the government, now that they had proven that they could mobilize if they needed to do so. On February 27, the Mayor of Greensboro formed the Mayor’s Committee on Community Relations to study and attempt to fix the race relations issues that existed in Greensboro. Meanwhile, sit-in demonstrations continued across the south.
On April 1, the Committee reported that their efforts had failed – the storeowners had been wholly unwilling to compromise and integrate even a small portion of their lunch counters. Later that day, black students returned to the streets, picketing in front of stores and returning to their seats at the lunch counters.
The next day, the lunch counters were shut down again. For several weeks, a few picketers stood in front of each store that refused to integrate its lunch counters, maintaining a constant presence in the minds of Greensboro citizens. Segregationists held counter-pickets, which usually included signs meant to intimidate the black demonstrators. There were claims that the white counter-picketers were paid by the Ku Klux Klan, but naturally, there was no solid evidence that this was the case. Regardless, there was no violence, and no one was arrested.
On April 21, black students went into Kress’s, another store that had closed its lunch counter, and sat at the counter anyway. 45 students were arrested for trespassing. Though this news was covered by the press, it did little to affect the movement, and the students did not court arrest again.
By mid-May, several other cities had integrated their lunch counters, including Nashville and nearby Winston-Salem. However, Greensboro’s storeowners remained strongly opposed to integration, arguing that those that supported the black students did not patronize the stores, and most of their clientele favored continued segregation.
Finally, on July 25, without any fanfare, three black students sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter and were served. The newspapers covered the event briefly, but it was a quiet story – a column the next day, and no pictures to speak of. Despite the seemingly casual nature of the event, it was carefully organized and negotiated by the black student leadership, the Greensboro Mayor’s office and the storeowners.
The sit-in campaign was eventually successful not because they had succeeded in making a moral appeal to the storeowners, but because it was economically impossible for the storeowners to fight the sit-ins. Though Greensboro would not fully integrate until several years later, the NCA&T students’ success with the sit-in campaign would inspire continued participation in the civil rights movement among individual students.
The nonviolent occupation of a public space, or sit-in, dated at least to Mahatma Gandhi’s campaigns for Indian independence from Britain. In the United States, labor organizations and the northern-based Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had employed sit-ins as well. As events in Greensboro began to draw attention, SNCC moved swiftly to associate itself with this civil rights tactic, and over the next two months, sit-ins spread to more than 50 cities.
Particularly significant were events in Nashville, Tennessee, where the King-affiliated Nashville Christian Leadership Council had been preparing for this moment. Back in 1955, King had reached out to the Reverend James Lawson, a civil rights activist and missionary who had served in India and studied Gandhian satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance. King urged Lawson to relocate to the South: “Come now,” King said. “We don’t have anyone like you down there.”
Working with King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Lawson in 1958 began to train a new generation of nonviolent activists. His students included Diane Nash, James Bevel, and John Lewis, today a U.S. representative from Georgia. All soon would assume prominence in the civil rights movement. At these training seminars, they agreed to stage a series of sit-ins at department store restaurants. Blacks were permitted to spend money in those stores, but not to eat at their restaurants.
The Nashville activists organized carefully and moved deliberately. But when the Greensboro sit-in began to draw national attention, they were ready. In February 1960, hundreds of their activists began the sit-ins. Their student-drafted instruction sheets captured the personal discipline and dignified commitment to nonviolence they would offer the world:
• Don’t strike back or curse back if abused.
• Don’t block entrances to the stores and aisles.
• Show yourself friendly and courteous at all times.
• Sit straight and always face the counter.
• Remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.
• Remember love and nonviolence, may God bless each of you.
Typically a lunch counter would close when a sit-in began, but after the first few incidents, police began to arrest protestors, and the subsequent trials drew large crowds. When convicted of disorderly conduct, the activists chose to serve jail time rather than pay a fine.
Nashville was an early example of how Jim Crow could not survive exposure. The legendary journalist David Halberstam was just beginning his career, and his reports for the Nashville Tennessean helped attract national media attention. The sit-in movement spread throughout much of the country, and soon Americans across the nation were stunned by photographs like the one that appeared in the February 28, 1960 New York Times. The caption read: “A white man swings an 18-inch-long [46-centimeter-long] bat at a Negro woman in Montgomery. She was injured by the blow. The attack occurred yesterday after the woman brushed against another white man. Police, standing near by, made no arrest.” On April 19 of that year, a bomb exploded at the home of the Nashville students’ chief legal counsel. Some 2,000 African Americans swiftly organized a march to the City Hall, where they confronted the mayor. Would he, Diane Nash asked, favor ending lunch-counter segregation? Yes, came the reply, but, “I can’t tell a man how to run his business. He has got rights too.”
This “right” to discriminate lay at the heart of the struggle. Meanwhile, the bad publicity stung the businessmen of Nashville, as did the stark contrast between the dignified, nonviolent black students and their armed and all-too-violent opponents. Secret negotiations began, and on May 10, 1960, quietly and without fanfare, a number of downtown lunch counters began serving black customers. There were no further incidents, and soon thereafter Nashville became the first southern city successfully to begin desegregating its public facilities.
In 1962 the Civil Rights Act passed in Congress (which makes it illegal to discriminate against anyone based on the color of their skin in private businesses like soda fountains and ice cream parlors).