Posted by rflacks on:
We're back from an extended trip--to Vietnam and Cambodia. I'll try to report on that experience here in a few days. but just now I wanted to take note of the fact that the 'first' lunch counter sit-in occurred 50 years ago this week. It was the action by 4 black students at North Carolina A & T on the afternoon of February 1, 1960 that I refer to. It wasn't really the first such action--small groups of black and white activists had made similar forays in other southern towns in prior years. But the Greensboro act was the one that made history.
First of all, the fact that these students sat down at a segregated lunch counter, ordered coffee, were refused and harrassed--all this appeared on TV. The next day they were joined by a couple of dozen others, and within days lunch counters at five and dime stores across the South were beseiged by black kids ordering beverages in violation of local law and/or custom. The structure of southern segregation was made to crumble by this simple, everyday move of students' bodies into banned space--a move covered in the world media.
These sit-ins were the spark that ignited the mass southern freedom movement, for they were followed by similar moves into other banned spaces: freedom riders on segregated buses, freedom swimmers in segregated pools, freedom shoppers, freedom voters. Mass marches of children that filled local jails or were dispersed by fire hoses and snarling dogs and cattle prods. The vulnerability of segregation of public facilities is that it can be broken by these simple acts of bodily transgression. And it's the nature of mass movement that when a powerfully policed institution is shown to be vulnerable, large numbers of people see the chance to pour through the cracks even when they risk jail and violent reprisal.
Due notice has been taken of the anniversary, most notably by the conversion of the original lunch counter in Greensboro into a civil rights museum. But not enough notice, I feel, given the momentousness of the original happening.
Here's what deserves more recognition:
1. The four sit-inners acted on their own out of their own intense conversations about how they could make a difference in the world. And their act showed how a small number of people, acting creatively, can make history--can short circuit the conventional circuits of politicking. And their act showed the power of nom-violent direct action when creatively directed.
2. Their act was magnified not only by TV but more importantly by a web of social networks throughout the south that enabled the sit in to be replicated hundreds of times by tens of thousands of young people within a short time. Beneath the radar of mass media attention, the black communities of the south had been constructing any number of ways to connect and mobilize.
3. The sit-ins created a white student movement in parallel. Because the sit-ins occurred in southern franchises of mational chain stores, many of us in northern cities and college towns could picket our local branches of these chains. The sympathetic picketimg of Woolworths and Kresges was the occasion for socially concerned white kids to meet each other--ad from these meetings the white student new left was born.
4. it wasn't just the chance to meet but the moral imperative tht southern injustice placed on relatively privileged white studemts that impelled such new commitment. And it ws the example, the suffering and the apparent purity of the southern students that inspired us further.
if there is any single act that made 'the sixties' possible--i.e. that made it posssible for a lot of young people to believe that the world coild be changed through our own self-action and creativity, it was the sit-in in Greensboro on 2/1/60 that served.