The 1960 Sit-ins in Context
— Marty Oppenheimer
WE THINK OF the Sit-In Movement as beginning on February 1, 1960, fifty years ago. In the minds of many this was the initiating event that led to many subsequent developments in the broader civil rights movement, indeed as a turning point in Black, and more generally, U.S. history. But the sit-ins, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s had their origins in vast social changes that began long before.
In the years immediately following World War II and the defeat of fascism, the U.S. South had more in common with South Africa than it had with the U.S. North. More than half of all Blacks were living in rural areas. A “Black Belt” of counties in which Blacks were the majority or close to it, ran from rural Maryland to East Texas. Their political influence in this belt was nil.
Even a decade later, in the presidential election of 1956, Louisiana had four counties in which Blacks were 61 to 73% of the population and not one was registered to vote. In 1947 there were only 595,000 Blacks registered in the 11 Southern states, out of about five million of voting age. The entire fabric of social, political and economic institutions was totally segregated, and totally unequal.
By 1950 about 20% of Blacks were still in agriculture, twice the white rate; the majority of these were day laborers. Conditions little short of serfdom and peonage were typical for many Black people in rural areas.
This agricultural Black proletariat was integral to the economic structure of the South, which could reasonably be viewed as a neo-colony or branch-plant of the North. Segregation functioned to maintain a low-paid Black labor force in both agriculture and industry, and to keep Black and white workers from uniting around common issues.
Yet the seeds of change had already been planted. The structures of dependent development had begun to crack 17 years earlier, during the Depression, with the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA, an autonomous publicly owned institution created by the New Deal electrified, literally, many parts of the South, promoting the beginnings of an infrastructure for industrial development. This in turn enabled Southern industry to play its part in war production during World War II. The gradual shift from rural to urban-industrial proletarianization was underway.
The North-South Divide
Outside the South, patterns of segregation were often similar in their day-to-day effects on many African Americans after the war, except that they were not incorporated into law. Despite two world “wars to save democracy,” the armed forces remained segregated until the Korean War. Movie houses in many communities had separate sections for Black people.
Service for integrated groups in restaurants was problematic. Many restaurants, hotels, amusement parks, public swimming pools, libraries, not to mention hospitals, both North and South, refused to allow African Americans through their doors.
Those seeking a university-level education were almost entirely limited to traditionally Black colleges, some state supported. Lincoln University, an African-American institution in Pennsylvania, could at that time boast that half of all Black physicians in the United States had obtained their bachelors’ degrees there. The number of elected and appointed Black officials in these years remained small.
Nevertheless, the industrialized North with its large urban working class, which included most Northern Blacks, presented a picture qualitatively different from that of the still relatively rural South. The terrorization of the Black population by local whites, while not absent, was much more limited. Mob activity, again not unknown, was more sporadic given the concentration of the Black population.
The African-American economic infrastructure was better-developed, and Black cultural institutions far more influential. The economic self-interest of white business, centered in the North, also required at minimum an appearance of tolerance, and a limited degree of integration of the work force for the sake of bureaucratic rationality — a factor which would soon contribute to the elimination of separate Black units in the armed forces. Moreover, an increasingly globally oriented U.S. business class could ill afford the label of bigotry in the context of the Cold War.
Perhaps most important, the growth of the services sector, including the state sector, impelled by the expansion of multi-national business and the U.S. state’s role as its protector, required large numbers of educated workers, with color and gender gradually playing a lesser role in employment. The merit civil service systems at most levels of government enabled many Blacks to attain middle-level, secure employment.
The Transformation and Civil Rights
In the years following World War II, as Southern agriculture declined, Northern investments began to turn the South from an economically dependent region into an integral component of U.S. capitalism as a whole, indeed an essential component given its cheaper labor force. With industrial development came further urbanization and proletarianization of the Black population, increasingly liberated from rural life (and from the Ku Klux Klan).
In the South Atlantic states, 18.7% of the Black population lived in urban areas in 1900. By 1950 it was 48%. The “Black Belt” of Deep South plantation counties was rapidly shrinking. The Black petty bourgeoisie of merchants, clergy, and other professionals grew. Black-owned newspapers and radio stations proliferated.
This differentiated, urbanized class structure was able to create economic reserves, enabling more Blacks to enter (mostly still segregated) universities, which became breeding grounds for intellectual ferment and protest. Urban Black workers’ contacts with labor unions, some of them led by radicals, increased. The ambitions of the Black bourgeoisie, combined with the material interests of the Black community, promoted increased participation in the political process in the urban South.
Black voting in the North was already extensive, and Black political organizations (mainly components of Democratic Party urban “machines”) were not without influence on white Democratic politicians. There were by then several Black members of the House of Representatives from the North.
The Civil Rights Movement that we associate with the 1960s was the culmination of this vast set of social and economic changes. The tradition of Black struggle itself, going back to the very beginnings of slavery in the New World, was also part of the context for the new movement. Even the failed movement to stop “Jim Crow” legislation, which had imposed segregation in the South following Reconstruction, resulted in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People by Blacks and radical whites in the 1905-1908 period.
The Garvey “back to Africa” movement of the 1920s provided tens of thousands of Blacks with organizational experience. In December, 1955 the Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. began. In 1957 Congress, under the Republican Eisenhower administration, passed the first civil rights bill since 1875. In that year, and again in 1958 and 1959, there were demonstrations in Washington demanding implementation of court decisions on school integration. There were sporadic sit-ins to integrate public facilities including restaurants and amusement parks (one of the earliest was in Chicago in 1942).
By 1957, on the eve of the new civil rights movement, there were 1,304,000 Black voters in the 11 Southern states. By 1960 there were 1.5 million, enough to constitute critical margins for president Kennedy in several states.
The Movement Erupts
The February 1, 1960 sit-ins at segregated coffee counters in Greensboro, N.C. by Black college students occurred in an environment that in hindsight was perfect for the “take-off” of the movement. Greensboro is located in a part of the state historically opposed to the domination of the Dixiecrat-ruled “Black Belt” plantation counties. Only 25% of the Greensboro population was Black.
Aside from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, the “home” of the four men who sat in at the Woolworth store seeking counter service that first day, there were four other colleges in Greensboro. The students at one of them, Bennett, a Black women’s college, would be a source of support. There was an NAACP Branch; its president first promised legal help, then contacted the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which sent down a trainer in nonviolent action techniques. These resources were essential.
The Greensboro sit-ins “triggered” similar demonstrations throughout the South and Border States. Within 60 days the sit-ins spread to nearly 80 communities as far removed as Xenia, Ohio and Sarasota, Florida. By August, some segregated facilities had been integrated in 27 communities of the Upper South.
By March, 1961, CORE was able to announce that 138 communities had integrated at least some facilities, often despite intense hostility and brutal attacks on the nonviolent demonstrators by some segments of the population, especially white youths.
Local politicians and merchants were under intense pressure in many cities of the Upper South as the demonstrations spread. First, the nonviolent demonstrators disrupted normal business and threatened financial losses. And second, the disturbances caused by segregationists created a climate considered not conducive to investment by outside (Northern) corporations.
This pressure created an incentive for settlement of the disputes, that is, integration of at least some public facilities. It is clear that such integration did not in any way challenge the basic property relations of these communities. Political arrangements, on the other hand, would change as Black voting increased and Black candidates came to be elected to local offices later in the decade.
In the Deep Southern states of South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, the movement and its community allies met with intense repression including mass arrests of students, expulsions from colleges, firings of sympathetic faculty, and many attacks on individuals.
Under such virtually police state conditions, organizing nonviolent direct action (sit-ins in the main in 1960) required immense courage by Black students and their community supporters, and in fact there were communities with Black colleges where fear predominated.
All the more remarkable then that demonstrations did take place in places like Montgomery, Alabama (where the police department was heavily Ku Klux Klan); Columbia, South Carolina (where on one occasion 192 students were arrested while marching around the State Capitol); and Orangeburg, South Carolina (where some 500 students were arrested and hosed down in freezing weather).
Resistance to the movement was most intense, typically, where Blacks constituted at least 30% and sometimes as much as 60% of the population. Larger proportions of the labor force, both white and Black, were still in agriculture. Blacks were systematically barred from voting. Modern commerce and industry, bringing with them a semblance of cultural enlightenment (including religious and racial tolerance), had yet to appear.
Integration was viewed by most whites as a threat to the basic social and political order, not without reason: Black participation in elections would (and ultimately did) lead to the election of Black mayors, sheriffs, and other local officials.
Resistance to change could be overcome only with federal intervention, which was still a few years away.
The Legacy of Change
In today’s economic climate — which for African Americans is new only by virtue of being worse than in normally bad times — it might be argued, especially by those lacking the experience of the pre-civil rights years, that the mass desegregation movement was ultimately of minimal significance in the improvement of the condition of Black Americans.
In fact, the movement achieved a great deal. It was responsible in significant measure for the political modernization of the South, if only in the sense that a two-party system replaced the old Dixiecrat oligarchy. Its economic modernization under the auspices of Northern capital had already been well underway, and was the prerequisite for the development of the movement, but it was the movement itself that forced the integration of the South into the mainstream of a national political culture, revanchist fantasies about the Confederacy not withstanding.
The re-enfranchisement of Southern Blacks, a painful, long-term process that antedated the 1960s but escalated dramatically under the impetus of the movement, forced the U.S. national bourgeoisie, acting through the federal government, to grant concessions and enforce the law to a previously unknown degree.
This enabled Blacks in large numbers to enter into politics. More Blacks today vote and hold office than ever before. In the U.S. Congress members of the Black Caucus head committees. A Black man is president of the United States, something not imaginable without large-scale Black participation in the political process.
But perhaps more important on a day-to-day level are the social changes that have taken place. “In the South,” as Piven and Cloward say in Poor People’s Movements (1977), “the deepest meaning of the winning of democratic political rights is that the historical primacy of terror as a means of social control has been substantially diminished. The reduction of terror in the everyday life of a people is always in itself an important gain.”
The diminishment of terror goes hand in hand with the undermining of segregation in many dimensions of public life. “The South,” says Aldon Morris, a Black sociologist, in The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (1984), “is a different place today…Southern blacks now live in a world…that does not automatically strip them of human dignity.”
Although much informal segregation persists, Blacks will never again permit the law to enforce segregationist practices. This constitutes a gigantic step towards dignity and self-esteem.
The Civil Rights Movement was never intended to be more than a reform struggle, except in the eyes of radicals such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, who were both assassinated. They understood that if real equality in all spheres of life, including the labor market, was to be achieved for the mass of the Black population, nothing short of a revolutionary change in the social system would be required.
The verdict by some that the movement failed or was too limited means, therefore, only that it was unable to move beyond its reform goals — both because of its own internal limitations and, more importantly, because of the fierce resistance of a fundamentally coherent capitalist structure. It remains to be seen how long reform without fundamental change is able to satisfy the mass of the Black population, or how long the system’s coherence lasts.
A selective bibliography of readings on the background to the sit-ins, and their relationship to the broader civil rights movement:
Blumberg, Rhoda. Civil Rights: The 1960s Freedom Struggle. 1984, G.K. Hall; revised ed. 1991, Twayne Publishers.
Evans, Sara. Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation In the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. Vintage, 1980.
Morris, Aldon D. The Origins Of the Civil Rights Movement. The Free Press, 1984.
Piven, Frances Fox, and Cloward, Richard A. Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. Vintage, 1979.
And especially Zinn, Howard. SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Beacon, 1965.
ATC 147, July-August 2010