The sit-ins that changed America

From The LA Times: Of the big events of the early civil rights movement, the sit-ins have always been the least understood and, yet, the most important for today's young activists...

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From Andrew B. Lewis, The Los Angeles Times:

The “sixties” were born on Feb. 1, 1960, 50 years ago this week, when four African American college students staged the first sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Since then, the mythology of the ‘60s has dominated the idea of youthful activism.

Of the three big events of the early civil rights movement – the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott and the sit-ins – the sit-ins have always been the least understood and, yet, the most important for today’s young activists.

We forget how troubled the civil rights movement was in January 1960. It was six years after Brown, but fewer than 1 in 100 black students in the South attended an integrated school. And during the four years after the end of the bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. struggled to build on that victory. Many worried that the civil rights movement had ground to a halt. Then Greensboro changed everything.

In the time before Twitter, the rapid spread of the sit-ins was shocking. The first sit-in was an impulsive act, led by college students. They spread to Nashville, Atlanta, Miami, Durham, N.C., and Little Rock, Ark. – more than 70 cities and towns in eight weeks. By summer, more than 50,000 people had taken part in one.

At the time, this was not just the largest black protest against segregation ever; it was the largest outburst of civil disobedience in American history. The sit-ins rewrote the rules of protest. They were remarkably egalitarian: Everyone participated; everyone was in equal danger. And they went viral because they were easy to copy. All one needed for a sit-in was some friends and a commitment to a few simple principles of nonviolent protest.

Most important, the sit-ins were designed to highlight the immorality of segregation by forcing Southern policemen to arrest polite, well-dressed college students sitting quietly just trying to order a shake or a burger. The students believed deeply in Thoreau’s idea that the only place for a just person in an unjust society is jail.

Continue to The LA Times website for the full article.