Greensboro Sit-Ins

Sit-ins by African American college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, led to the integration of variety-store lunch counters and inspired similar direct-action tactics across the South. The struggle for civil rights became a mass movement after the sit-ins in Greensboro and other cities.

Summary of Event

Despite court decisions, limited integration of public schools, and events such as the Montgomery bus boycott, much of American life remained racially segregated as the United States entered the 1960’s. This was especially true in the southern and border states, where the Jim Crow system of legally imposed racial separation remained largely intact. One symbol of the discrimination suffered by southerners of African descent was the fact that while they could shop in variety stores, they were not allowed to sit down and eat at the lunch counters often found in such establishments. Greensboro sit-ins (1960)
Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests
Segregation;public accommodations
African Americans;segregation
Civil disobedience
Student protest movement
[kw]Greensboro Sit-Ins (Feb. 1-July 25, 1960)
[kw]Sit-Ins, Greensboro (Feb. 1-July 25, 1960)[Sit Ins]
Greensboro sit-ins (1960)
Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests
Segregation;public accommodations
African Americans;segregation
Civil disobedience
Student protest movement
[g]North America;Feb. 1-July 25, 1960: Greensboro Sit-Ins[06420]
[g]United States;Feb. 1-July 25, 1960: Greensboro Sit-Ins[06420]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Feb. 1-July 25, 1960: Greensboro Sit-Ins[06420]
[c]Social issues and reform;Feb. 1-July 25, 1960: Greensboro Sit-Ins[06420]
Blair, Ezell, Jr.
McCain, Franklin[Maccain, Franklin]
McNeil, Joseph[Macneil, Joseph]
Richmond, David
Zane, Edward R.
Johns, Ralph

In 1960, Greensboro, North Carolina, was a rapidly growing city of 120,000 that prided itself on the progressive nature of its race relations. Segregated conditions were as characteristic of Greensboro, however, as they were of cities with reputations for racial violence and intimidation. Despite the fact that Greensboro had been one of the few southern cities to accept publicly the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education overturning the doctrine of “separate but equal” in public education, the city had permitted only token integration of its schools. Its lunch counters would serve African Americans only if they stood, and the color line was effectively maintained in most areas of the city’s life.

Three civil rights activists—Ronald Martin, Robert Patterson, and Mark Martin—stage a sit-in at Woolwroth’ in Greensboro, North Carolina, in emulation of the Greensboro Four.

(Library of Congress)

The prevailing order was unexpectedly challenged on February 1, 1960, when four college students from the all-black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College(A&T) entered the Woolworth’s Woolworth’s variety store[Woolworths] variety store in downtown Greensboro. To illustrate the illogical nature of the system, the four first bought toothpaste and school supplies, carefully collecting their receipts as proof that the store would sell them merchandise. They then took seats at the lunch counter, to the amazement of store employees and other patrons. They were refused service and, after asking why Woolworth’s would sell them toothpaste but not coffee, they left the lunch counter. There was no confrontation with the police, although a reporter did arrive and news of the sit-in was reported by the local press.

The four freshmen who would come to be known as the Greensboro Four Greensboro Four —Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond—had not launched their protest as part of an orchestrated campaign. Rather, they were encouraged to undertake a public act of protest against segregation by Ralph Johns, the white owner of a clothing store who employed A&T students. Johns provided the students with the money for the items they purchased at Woolworth’s and was also responsible for tipping off the newspaper. The students, however, acted on their own initiative and decided to challenge the Jim Crow system the night before the sit-in. During an animated discussion that night, triggered by McCain’s recent experience with segregated bus travel, they dared one another to act. The four later acknowledged the influence of Mahatma Gandhi’s example of nonviolence but stressed that their primary motivation derived from their own Christian convictions and sense of justice. Although all four had been youth members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), neither it nor any other civil rights organization was involved in the initial sit-in.

News of the protest by the four freshmen spread rapidly over the A&T campus and throughout the city. The Student Executive Committee for Justice Student Executive Committee for Justice was quickly formed, with the four at the center. The next day, February 2, twenty-three additional students accompanied the original quartet to Woolworth’s. What had begun as a small protest began to grow, eventually becoming a mass movement. Soon the demonstrators were working in shifts, and the sit-in spread to Kress’s Kress’s[Kresss] , the other downtown variety store. The demonstrators invariably were well dressed and emphasized their commitment to nonviolence. The stores refused to serve them but did not ask the local police to arrest them. White hecklers, one of whom tried to set the coat of a demonstrator on fire, created some tension.

By the end of the week, the sit-ins had grown through the support of students from Bennett College, a black women’s college in town, as well as through some participation by students from Greensboro’s white colleges. Tensions ran high, however, and on February 6, a bomb scare prompted the closing of both Woolworth’s and Kress’s. By this time, a well-organized student protest movement was in place, one that enjoyed wide support from Greensboro’s black community, as well as national assistance from the Congress of Racial Equality Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which began to organize boycotts Boycotts of Woolworth’s and Kress’s in some northern cities. On February 8, sit-ins began in the neighboring city of Winston-Salem, and from there the phenomenon quickly spread.

In the wake of the bomb scare, the students agreed to a two-week truce, which was subsequently extended as efforts began to negotiate an end to the protests. Edward R. Zane, a city council member who had strong ties to the local business community, pressed for action from Greensboro’s mayor, George Roach Roach, George . The latter eventually agreed to create a committee to seek a negotiated settlement and named Zane to head it.

The mayor’s committee was appointed at the end of February and spent all of March gathering information and attempting to mediate between the students and the stores. The committee’s mail showed that many in the community sympathized with the students’ position. Managers of the two stores, however, believed that they were being singled out unfairly and were unwilling to desegregate without other eating establishments doing the same. The city’s restaurants were unsympathetic to the variety stores’ plight, however. At the end of the month, the committee announced that it had failed to achieve a settlement.

The sit-ins resumed on April 1. The next day, the two stores closed their lunch counters. Greensboro’s black community responded with an economic boycott and street demonstrations that demanded an end to segregated eating facilities. The picketing soon attracted counterpickets organized by the Ku Klux Klan Ku Klux Klan , and the generally peaceful confrontations between the two groups became a feature of life in downtown Greensboro. Kress’s reopened its lunch counter later in the month but roped it off to allow store personnel to control access. When students peacefully moved into the restricted area, some forty-five of them were arrested, including three of the Greensboro Four. This was the only mass arrest during the sit-in campaign. The students were released without bail.

As the stand-off continued, downtown stores found that their business was falling off; Woolworth’s sales fell by 20 percent. The economic boycott was directly effective, and in addition many whites stayed away to avoid whatever trouble might occur downtown. In these circumstances, pressure for a settlement mounted. The local newspapers had for some time been sympathetic to the demonstrators’ aims, if not always with their methods. Civic leaders and businesspeople not only worried about lost revenue but also feared the loss of Greensboro’s progressive image. In June, Zane’s committee undertook further negotiations. Finally, the stores agreed to the committee’s recommendation that they desegregate their lunch counters, although they waited until school was out in order to avoid the appearance of giving in to the students. Without public announcement, the lunch counters desegregated on July 25, 1960. The first black patrons served were the stores’ own employees.


The Greensboro sit-ins marked the opening of a major new phase in the Civil Rights movement, one characterized by large-scale, grassroots protests against segregated conditions in public accommodations. Such direct-action tactics, rather than protracted legal battles in the courts, would mark the Civil Rights movement of the first half of the 1960’s.

The sit-ins in Greensboro were neither the first sit-ins nor the first protests against segregated lunch counters. Facilities in Oklahoma City and Wichita had been desegregated by similar tactics in 1958. It was the Greensboro sit-ins, however, that touched off the tidal wave of direct, confrontational protest that marked the early 1960’s. Sit-in protests spread from Greensboro to other cities in North Carolina, then to Nashville and on to dozens of other southern cities as well as a number in the North. By the end of 1960, approximately one hundred southern cities had experienced sit-ins and roughly one-third of them had desegregated their lunch counters. More would follow in subsequent years. Approximately seventy thousand people participated in the sit-ins, making the movement the most massive expression of discontent with the racial status quo that the country had yet seen.

Blacks and sympathetic whites were inspired to confront other forms of segregation, and it became increasingly difficult for other whites to maintain that southern blacks were basically content and were only being stirred up by outside agitators. In cities where lunch counters were desegregated, white patrons quickly adjusted, casting further doubt on the proposition that southern race relations were impervious to change.

For Greensboro, the sit-ins marked the beginning of a decade of periodic protests and change. The spring of 1963 would see more than one thousand arrests as demonstrators sought to desegregate a range of public accommodations. Out of this later round of protests would emerge Jesse Jackson Jackson, Jesse , then a student at A&T. In 1969, another period of demonstrations resulted in violence in which an A&T student was killed and several police officers injured.

The Greensboro sit-ins also marked something of a generational shift in the Civil Rights movement. Although they had received endorsement by the local NAACP chapter and some organizational support from CORE, the sit-ins had not been initiated by any of the major civil rights organizations but by four college students. In part, the sit-ins grew out of the impatience of the younger generation of southern blacks with the pace of change in race relations. It was largely the young who answered the call, first in Greensboro and later in other cities.

While the sit-ins were still going on in Greensboro, Ella Jo Baker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a meeting of black student leaders from throughout the South at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina (April 15-17, 1960). Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders addressed the students, who decided to set up their own organization. Out of their efforts was born the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It quickly became one of the most active and militant civil rights organizations of the 1960’s and was involved in most of the major civil rights campaigns of the decade. In a broader context, the student activism embodied in the sit-ins and SNCC helped inspire the organization of the Students for a Democratic Society later in 1960, as well as contributing to the more general campus unrest of the decade.

Nationally, the sit-in movement that spread from Greensboro helped push civil rights onto the nation’s political agenda. Ultimately, the campaign against segregated facilities that began in Greensboro would help secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a measure that outlawed racial segregation in eating places and other public accommodations. Greensboro sit-ins (1960)
Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests
Segregation;public accommodations
African Americans;segregation
Civil disobedience
Student protest movement

Further Reading

  • Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960’s. 1981. New ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. The standard history of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the most prominent organization to arise from the sit-in movement. Illustrates one of the major organizational effects of the Greensboro sit-ins. Bibliography and index.
  • Chafe, William H. Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. The definitive study of the Civil Rights movement in Greensboro. Contains a chapter on the sit-ins. Especially effective at bringing out the differences between black and white perspectives. Indispensable for seeing the sit-ins in their local context. Includes an informative “Note on Sources” and an index.
  • Goldfield, David R. Black, White, and Southern: Race Relations and Southern Culture, 1940 to the Present. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. Good overall treatment of race relations that places the Civil Rights movement within the context of Southern culture. Provides a useful picture of the racial etiquette that underpinned the Jim Crow system. Sees the Greensboro sit-ins as pivotal in extending the civil rights movement across the South. Bibliography and index.
  • Greensboro Sit-Ins: Launch of A Civil Rights Movement. Web site that offers an excellent collection of primary source documents, audio, and photographs from the Greensboro sit-ins. Highly recommended.
  • Morris, Aldon. Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York: Free Press, 1984. A combination of history and sociology that explores the Civil Rights movement through 1963 by focusing on the organizations involved. Its account of the sit-ins differs from others in the importance it places on preexisting organizations, both in providing a background and in facilitating the movement’s spread. Bibliography and index.
  • Oppenheimer, Martin. The Sit-In Movement of 1960. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1989. Originally written as a doctoral dissertation in sociology in 1963. Provides a nearly contemporary perspective on the sit-in movement as a whole. Useful for placing events in Greensboro in overall context. Bibliography and index.
  • Raines, Howell. My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. An oral history of the Civil Rights movement. Includes an interview with Franklin McCain that provides a firsthand account of the original Greensboro sit-in. Other interviews show how quickly the sit-in movement spread. Index but no bibliography.
  • Wolff, Miles. Lunch at the Five and Ten. Rev. ed. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990. First published in 1970, this is a highly readable account of the Greensboro sit-ins based in part on interviews with the major participants. Contains an interesting epilogue that provides accounts of the subsequent careers of the Greensboro Four. Also contains a useful introduction by August Meier. Lacks a bibliography but includes an index.
  • Zinn, Howard. SNCC: The New Abolitionists. 1964. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2002. Though less comprehensive than Carson’s work listed above, this is a contemporary account written by a historian who served as an adviser to SNCC. Vividly brings out the student context in which the sit-in movement began and spread.

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