February is Black History Month. A tradition dating from 1926. Ironically, February marks the month that Civil Rights in the United States crossed a crucial threshhold when public school students played a critical role in the American Civil Rights Movement. Black history notes that the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was in 1954. The modern Civil Rights Movement began when Rosa Parks 1 defied Jim Crow in 1955. But in reality, little actually changed for Black Americans until years later.
Until, on February 1, 1960, four Black students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College walked up to the lunch counter near closing at F. W. Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina, and ordered foodservice. When refused, they began a "sit-in" by refusing to leave. Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond stayed until closing. The next morning they and Billy Smith, Clarence Henderson and others, totaling twenty-five male and four female students, sat at the lunch counter when the store opened and stayed until closing.
The next day, sixty students arrived in the morning, including some students from Bennett College and Dudley High School. They sat at every seat at the lunch counter. The fourth day, the sit-in continued, and three White students from the local Women's College, Genie Seaman, Marilyn Lott and Ann Dearsley, joined the protest. Students also started another sit-in at the local S.H.Kress & Co lunch counter.
On the fifth day, fifty White Supremacist adult males occupied most of the seats at Woolworth's lunch counter, but the student protest continued by occupying the remaining seats. On the sixth day, student protesters again occupied all of the seats, counter-protesters arrived and a thousand people were in the store when a telephoned bomb threat caused the store to be closed and evacuated. Woolworth's decided to temporarily close its lunch counter and protesters agreed to temporarily suspend their sit-in.
The seventh day was a Sunday when stores at that time were customarily closed. On Monday, student sit-ins began at Woolworth's lunch counters in other North Carolina cities, in South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Virginia and in New York City. On February 19, the North Carolina Council of Churches voted to support the protest. During the last week of February the Woolworth's in Greensboro reopened its lunch counter but refused to serve Black students.
The sit-in did not start immediately as Greensboro's mayor attempted to negotiate with the business community by creating the Greensboro Advisory Committee on Community Relations, headed by city council member Edward R. Zane and representing the City Council, the Chamber of Commerce and the Merchant's Association.
In March, the student sit-in movement had spread to 54 cities in 12 states. On the last day of the month, Edward Zane, announced that the business community refused to integrate. On April first, the sit-in protest renewed, this time with a boycott of local businesses. On April second, Woolworth and Kress closed their lunch counters but students continued to occupy the seats.
The growing sit-in movement across the country led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organize a meeting of student sit-in protesters from across the country during spring break to create the national Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Community business leaders in Greensboro felt that once local colleges closed for the summer, the protest would end. However, as college students left town for summer break, Dudley High School students led by William Thomas took up the protest and expanded it to Meyer's and Walgreens. Community business leaders finally capitulated. On July 25, Woolworth employees Charles Bess, Mattie Long, Susie Morrison and Jamie Robinson became the first Blacks to be served at Woolworth's as they and Kress opened their lunch counters the next day to all.
In December, 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation during interstate travel, including bus terminals, restaurants and rest rooms was unconstitutional (Boynton v. Virginia). It was similar to a 1947 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that was largely ignored. But this time, two Black students, John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette from Nashville, Tennessee, were inspired by the Greensboro sit-in to confront the authorities by sitting at the front of an interstate bus and refusing to move, successfully riding to their destination.
Soon afterward, Lewis and Lafayette received a letter from the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE) congratulating them for their defiance and asking if they would participate in the resurrection of a failed national CORE program from the 1947 days called "Freedom Rides" where interracial passengers would ride buses throughout the Jim Crow South.
Lafayette's parents felt this was too dangerous and prohibited his participation. But John Lewis joined the program that on May 4, 1961, sent two buses from Washington, D.C., through Virginia on their way across the South to New Orleans.
They made it as far as South Carolina before Lewis and another rider were beaten by a mob. But the Freedom Ride continued. When the riders reached Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., attended a dinner in their honor but predicted “You will never make it through Alabama.”
Predictably, on May 14th when the buses reached Anniston, Alabama, one bus was fire-bombed and the passengers attacked by a White mob led by the Ku Klux Klan. When the Freedom Riders reached Birmingham, Alabama, the local police chief “Bull” Connor, allowed another mob attack. CORE officials felt they were defeated and stopped the Freedom Ride, flying the riders to New Orleans.
But three days later, leaders of the newly formed Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee stepped forward and on May 17th, 1961, seven male and three female students, led by John Lewis and Diane Nash left Nashville on a bus for Birmingham, Alabama. Just outside of Birmingham, the bus was stopped by “Bull” Connor's police and the riders were arrested. Two days later, at 2 a.m. the police drove them to Tennessee and left them just across the state border.
The students, however, returned to Birmingham but the impending violence made it difficult to find a bus driver to continue. Only intervention from U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the face of national news coverage resulted in the Freedom Ride continuing on to Montgomery, Alabama, under an armed escort on May 20th.
When the bus reached Montgomery, Alabama, the city of Rosa Park's defiance five years earlier, a White mob attacked the passengers and several were savagely beaten, including a White Freedom Rider and a U.S. Justice Department official who had made the arrangements for them to leave Birmingham. The incident caused Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to leave a speaking tour and return to Montgomery. At a rally where Dr. King stated “the federal government must not stand idly by while blood thirsty mobs beat nonviolent students with impunity” the Alabama National Guard, mobilized by U.S. Attorney General Kennedy, dispersed a White mob with tear gas.
The students refused to quit. Soon they left for Jackson, Mississippi, where they were arrested upon their arrival. On May 25th they were tried before a judge who turned away and refused to face the lawyer who defended them. They were each sentenced to sixty days in prison.
But by then, other students from around the country had joined the Freedom Rides and soon over 300 students were jailed in Mississippi. The Freedom Rides ended there, with many students spending the summer in prison. But on May 29th, the U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission issued regulations to ban segregation in all interstate travel facilities under its jurisdiction. The students had won.
The success of this nonviolent student protest movement after numerous other civil rights failures inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to organize the use of nonviolence and national publicity to confront Jim Crow. On May 4th, 1963, Dr. King began an organized protest to end the segregation of public facilities in Birmingham, Alabama, using sit-ins, protest marches, and boycotts of downtown merchants.
Thirty-five adults were arrested in the first three days. As the protests continued, the arrests mounted. After a week of protests and arrests, the resources of the protestors were being exhausted. The adults needed to keep employed to feed and maintain their families. They could not afford the long arrests and imprisonment. Dr. King wrote later:
“As we talked, a sense of doom began to pervade the room. I looked about me and saw that for the first time our most dedicated and devoted leaders were overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness.”
On April 12, 1963, Dr. King personally joined the protest march and was arrested. He was held incommunicado in solitary confinement, where he wrote his now famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Ralph Abernathy, his co-leader in the protest, was also arrested and confined. For a week, the protest stalled with their leaders missing and resources dwindling. Internationally known singer Harry Belafonte responded by delivering fundraising dollars to help with the resources, and on April 19, King and Abernathy were released from jail on bond. They faced a quick trial and almost certain conviction and imprisonment.
Dr. King realized:
“If our drive was to be successful, we must involve the students of the community. Even though we realized that involving teenagers and high school students would bring down upon us a heavy fire of criticism, we felt that we needed this dramatic new dimension. Our people were demonstrating daily and going to jail in numbers, but we were still beating our heads against the brick wall of the city officials' stubborn resolve to maintain the status quo. Our fight, if won, would benefit people of all ages. But most of all we were inspired with the desire to give to our young a true sense of their own stake in freedom and justice. We believed they would have the courage to respond to our call.”2
Students from local colleges and high schools flocked to the call. Classes were conducted to train the students in nonviolence and discipline during the protest. On May 2nd, 1963, over a thousand students rose en masse and descended upon downtown Birmingham to protest. Leaving local schools on cue they joined to march from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which served as the center of the protest, to downtown Birmingham. Nearly three-fourths of them were arrested and placed in jail. But the jail was soon filled up with students. The next day over two thousand students marched in protest.
Up until the children marched, the nonviolent protests had been met by Birmingham police with routine arrests and imprisonment. The protesters were trained not to fight or resist arrest. But with the jails full, and facing thousands of more protest marchers, “Bull” Connor decided violence was necessary. Fire hoses that spewed streams of water hundreds of feet were turned on the students. Police dogs were brought out to attack the marchers. Police used clubs to try and stop the marchers.
But the marches continued. On May 7th, the White business leaders convened a conference and on May 10th an agreement was announced to end the segregation of Birmingham. It was a partially secret agreement, but the announcement promised to end the segregation of public facilities in Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. King left that evening for Atlanta, later that night a bomb destroyed the motel room where he had been staying. Another bomb destroyed his brother's house. The city had long been known as “Bombingham.” Fortunately no one was killed.
The student led triumph in Birmingham resulted in a national vindication for Dr. King and nonviolent protests. It resulted in the galvanizing of protests against Jim Crow and the organization of the “March On Washington” where on August 28th, 1963, in Washington, D.C., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I have a dream” speech. However, it did not mean that student protest had triumphed, nor that schools were desegregated.
On May 20th, the Birmingham Board of Education suspended and expelled over a thousand of the students who had been arrested during the protests. There was a quick federal court ruling supporting the expulsions but soon afterward a federal appeals court intervened to stop them. In June, the Governor of Alabama stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to unsuccessfully attempt to block the admission of two Black students escorted by National Guard troops.
Meanwhile, over nine years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board that school segregation was illegal, Civil Rights leaders made plans to begin the integration of Birmingham schools that fall by allowing five Black students to enroll in formerly all White schools.
When school began in Birmingham on September 3, just a week after Dr. King's “I have a dream” speech, the Governor of Alabama sent state troopers from the Alabama capital, Montgomery, to prevent 11-year-old Dwight and 9-year-old Floyd Armstrong from enrolling at Birmingham's Graymont elementary school.
The children were turned away, but the next day Birmingham police ensured they were able to enroll while White mobs jeered at them and fought with police restraining the mob. With incredible courage, students with barely two-digit ages confronted violent adult attempts to stop them.
Violence included dynamite explosions that night at the home of a Birmingham civil rights lawyer. A news reporter wrote of hearing machinegun fire that night. The next day, Thursday, the Birmingham Board of Education closed the schools for the rest of the week.
On Monday, the Armstrongs were stopped from attending school by Alabama state troopers. The next day, September 10th, President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard who escorted the Armstrongs through several hundred angry White protesters to attend Graymont elementary school. Not far away, at Ramsay High School, a White mob fought with police as Richard A. Walker attempted to become the first Black student to attend there.
Protests continued but the students continued to attend integrated schools all week. Once again, the students in Birmingham were successful and Birmingham schools were finally integrated, not by Brown v. Board but by courageous young people.
That Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, dynamite destroyed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing 11-year-old Denise McNair and three 14-year-olds: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins. It was this bombing that outraged the nation, even the world, and galvanized efforts to finally bring civil rights to Black Americans.
It took the deaths of four young people and the courage of thousands more to bring about the beginning of the end for Jim Crow. There had been protests and riots before during World War Two. There had been orders that integrated the military in the postwar years. There had been outrage over Emmet Till's murder and other lynchings during the 1950s. There had been small victories when adults such as Rosa Parks stood their ground. There had been U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1940s and 1950s. But it was only when students became involved that the world changed for Black Americans.
From the wildfire of sit-ins across the United States started by the Greensboro students, to the resurrection of the Freedom Rides across the Jim Crow South by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to the galvanizing salvation of Dr. King's Birmingham marches by school students, to the actual integration of public schools by young students in the face of enraged adults, young people deserve credit for their courage in confronting and conquering Jim Crow.
When remembering Black history, America needs to remember that public school students led the way to Civil Rights. America didn't desegregate public schools, public schools desegregated America.
1 Rosa Parks actually followed in the footsteps of a 15-year-old high school student, Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her seat in a virtually identical situation nine months prior to Parks. Her case moved through the courts but Civil Rights leaders wanted a person they were more confident in and chose Rosa Parks.
2 MLK source: The Autobiography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.