News » Cover Stories

The history of the sit-in movement in Little Rock

It helped desegregate LR.

by

6 comments

In November 1962, Little Rock's downtown lunch counters experienced a number of sit-ins that convinced businessmen and merchants to desegregate city facilities. At one level, Little Rock's story of downtown desegregation is similar to that of many other upper-South cities. But at another level, the story has significant differences that are particularly revealing of the city's race relations in the 1960s.

Sit-ins are a nonviolent direct protest tactic popularized by the civil rights movement in the 1960s. African Americans, and their supporters, protested segregation by sitting at whites-only lunch counters and demanding service. The tactic was related to the labor union sit-down strikes used in the United States and Europe in the first half of the 20th century, in which workers halted production lines and placed pressure on business owners to meet pay and condition demands. The Congress of Racial Equality first used sit-ins in the civil rights movement as early as 1942. Other groups in Kansas and Oklahoma held sit-ins in 1958. The lunch room protests confronted segregation laws and highlighted the injustice of white stores taking money from African American customers for purchases at the tills but not allowing them to eat at their lunch counters.

The sit-ins at the F.W. Woolworth Store begun by four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro on Feb. 1, 1960, truly ignited a sit-in movement. The first sit-in quickly drew support from fellow students. The protests then spread to neighboring towns and cities in the state, and then all across the South. Within a year, more than 100 cities had experienced sit-ins and at least 50,000 people had participated in them. A new civil rights organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC — pronounced "snick") was formed to coordinate the sit-in movement. The sit-ins succeeded in convincing many businesses in upper South cities to voluntarily desegregate rather than face continued disruption.

The first sit-in in Little Rock took place shortly after the Greensboro action. At 11 a.m. March 10, 1960, around 50 Philander Smith College students marched from campus to the F.W. Woolworth store on Main Street and asked for service at its whites-only lunch counter. The manager refused to serve the students and immediately alerted Police Chief Eugene G. Smith. The assistant store manager called Woolworth's home office in St. Louis for instructions and then closed the lunch counter. When Chief Smith arrived he asked the students to leave. All but five did so. Those remaining, Charles Parker, 22; Frank James, 21; Vernon Mott, 19; Eldridge Davis, 19, and Chester Briggs, 18, were arrested for loitering.

Shortly after arriving at the police station, the five arrested students made bail of $100 each, posted by the Little Rock chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The students had called Daisy Bates, the state NAACP president and co-owner of Little Rock's leading African American newspaper, the Arkansas State Press, to inform her of the intended protest. Daisy's husband, L.C. Bates, arranged a bondsman, mobilized attorneys, and went down to the city jail to ensure the release of the students. Reporters on the scene asked L.C. Bates why the students had staged a sit-in. "Well, put it this way," Bates told them, "You can go anywhere in any store and buy anything but when you try to buy food you are trespassing and the kids can't understand it and neither can I."

On March 17, the five arrested students appeared for trial at Municipal Court. Other Philander Smith students packed the courtroom in a show of solidarity with their friends. Judge Quinn Glover found the students guilty under Arkansas Act 266 that prohibited "any person from creating a disturbance or breach of the peace in any public place of business." Glover handed each student a $250 fine and a 30-day jail sentence. The students' lawyers, Harold B. Anderson of Little Rock and George Howard Jr. of Pine Bluff (later a federal judge), indicated that the students' fines and sentences would be appealed.

In a show of defiance, and to place further pressure on downtown merchants, around 40 to 50 Philander Smith students immediately left the courtroom and headed downtown to stage further sit-ins. This time they targeted a number of downtown stores. All of the stores closed their lunch counters to customers when sit-ins took place. The students later convened at the State Capitol, where they sang "God Bless America" and "The Star Spangled Banner" before dispersing.

When the local NAACP sought talks with the Chamber of Commerce about desegregating lunch counters to halt the sit-ins they received a non-committal response. Unlike other business communities that moved more swiftly to respond to protests, Little Rock businessmen and merchants were slow to act. With the events of the 1957 Central High crisis still uppermost in their minds they were reluctant to address any racial issues in the city. As the president of the Chamber of Commerce put it, "The best thing for Little Rock to do now is nothing."

To support the sit-in movement, on March 31 the Little Rock NAACP adopted what it called a "Racial Self-Defense Policy" against discrimination by urging people not to patronize stores that practiced segregation. Local NAACP branch president J.C. Crenchaw sent a memorandum to all downtown merchants to announce this policy. Crenchaw also pleaded with "all religious institutions, fraternal organizations, fraternities, sororities, civic and political groups" in the African American community to withdraw patronage from targeted stores.

But within a week the boycott faded. The sit-ins not only spotlighted the business community's lack of desire to address racial issues in the city but also the lack of unity in Little Rock's African American community. The 1957 Central High crisis had seen Daisy and L.C. Bates emerge as the voice of the local African American community. Beyond those two people, leadership was in short supply.

Regional National Urban League representative C.D. Coleman reported in 1959 that "the one great problem facing Little Rock [is] the lack of unity, confidence and cooperation between Negro leaders. ... Disunity among Negro leaders [is of] greater concern than the school crisis." John Walker, the associate director of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations, the state affiliate of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Council, observed in 1960 that "Negro leadership is virtually nil." Walker expressed the belief that "the 'masses' of Negroes are anxious for more progressive leadership from new people."

The sit-ins promised that new progressive leadership but needed more widespread community support to be successful. Though more sit-ins were held at Main Street lunch counters during 1960 they were eventually ground to a halt by increasingly stiff fines and long sentences handed down to the students by the courts. With the students mired in the court system through delayed appeal after delayed appeal, and few in the African American community willing to offer their voice of support, the 1960 student sit-in movement in Little Rock ended without achieving any of its goals.

In July 1961, when the Freedom Rides came to Little Rock, they encountered much the same response in the city that the sit-ins had. Attempting to desegregate the city bus terminals, five Freedom Riders from the St. Louis branch of the Congress of Racial Equality were jailed by the city authorities. Again, little support from the local African American community was forthcoming. Within a few days the city released the Freedom Riders and sent them on their way with segregated bus terminals still intact.

"I'm ashamed of the record Arkansas is making," lamented L.C. Bates in August 1961. In September 1961, when African American composer and performer Duke Ellington was slated to perform at Little Rock's segregated Robinson Auditorium, Bates sent a telegram to Ellington's management company expressing disappointment "over your appearance ... at Robinson Memorial Auditorium before a segregated audience." African Americans in Little Rock were still limited to segregated balcony seats at the auditorium, noted Bates, while neighboring cities such as Memphis, Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Dallas had already desegregated their music venues. Ellington canceled the performance in protest.

The failed Freedom Rides and the Ellington cancellation represented a nadir for the local African American community. Recognizing the need for more assertive and coordinated leadership, four young African American medical professionals, optometrist Dr. William H. Townsend, general practitioner Dr. Maurice A. Jackson, dentist Dr. Garman P. Freeman and his wife, Dr. Evangeline Upshur, decided to act. They formed the Council on Community Affairs (COCA) to coordinate the activities among existing African American community organizations in the city to lobby for change.

COCA's initial efforts to engage in a dialogue with the white business community met with little success. To exert further pressure, on March 8, 1962, 22 members of COCA filed suit in U.S. District Court for the desegregation of "public parks, recreational facilities ... and all other public facilities" in the city. Although conceding the probable eventual success of the COCA lawsuit, the white business community declared its intent to draw out the process of desegregation for the longest possible amount of time.

The student sit-ins had earlier failed without the backing of a unified African American community leadership. Now the efforts of COCA, in the absence of immediate pressure exerted by direct action protests, met with little success. Only through a two-pronged approach of direct action coupled with the support of a wider community network that could help sustain such protests and articulate the demands of African Americans in the city would whites respond.

The Arkansas Council on Human Relations decided that outside help and expertise was needed to break the stalemate. They asked SNCC headquarters in Atlanta to send reinforcements. Those reinforcements came in the shape of white SNCC worker Bill Hansen, 23, who arrived in Little Rock on Oct. 24, 1962. Hansen had already participated in Freedom Rides and sit-ins elsewhere in the South, and had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in demonstrations in Albany, Ga., earlier in 1962. Hansen had been badly beaten while in jail in Albany, suffering a broken jaw and broken ribs. His trip to Little Rock marked his return to the movement after a period of convalescence.

Hansen contacted Philander Smith student Worth Long, who he had already met at several national SNCC conferences. Long took Hansen to a meeting of student activists on campus that evening. Only seven people attended. Among those present, Hansen failed to detect any "ground-swell of ... enthusiasm." He explained the work of SNCC and persuaded a couple of the students present to accompany him downtown the following day to try to gain service at a segregated lunch counter.

Hansen used the sit-in at Woolworth's to gauge community feeling. He noted "the absolute lack of tension at the counter" in contrast to the hysteria and violence that similar demonstrations had encountered in other communities. Hansen concluded "the whole incident gives an indication that there would be no widespread consternation among the white community if Negroes were served at the lunch counters."

The following Monday, Nov. 5, four black students went to Woolworth's to talk to the store manager. In an attempt to stall the students, he asked them to return in a couple of weeks' time. The students demanded an answer by Wednesday and left the store. On Wednesday, the manager told students that he was trying to work out a solution to the problem with other downtown merchants. When he refused to reveal further details the students sat down at the lunch counter, which the manager promptly closed.

Hansen called newspapers, television stations and radio stations to publicize the event as a way of bringing further pressure on the business community to meet the students' demands. When the police arrived, to avoid bad publicity the manager refused to press charges. By mid-afternoon the students left of their own accord.

This time the sit-ins had the intended impact on the business community. Shortly after the outbreak of new demonstrations, Willard A. Hawkins, the executive director of Downtown Little Rock Limited, representing a group of influential downtown business interests, contacted Worth Long. Hawkins informed Long that a group of businessmen had formed a Downtown Negotiating Committee headed by James Penick, president of Worthen Bank and Trust Co., and were willing to meet with students. Penick, a well-respected figure in the Little Rock business community, had discussed the situation with other downtown merchants. The threat of possible outside attention that Hansen brought with him helped forge a consensus that now was the time to grasp the nettle of downtown desegregation.

For the next two weeks a delegation made up of COCA and other representatives from the local African American community met with the businessmen to discuss the practicalities of desegregation. However, talks stalled over timing, with the African American delegation pressing for change within a matter of weeks and white merchants talking about gradual desegregation over a number of years.

On Nov. 28, disillusioned with the results of the negotiations, Philander Smith students expanded sit-in demonstrations to Walgreens, McClellan and Blass stores. At Walgreens, nine students asked for service. The manager closed the counter, but the students refused to leave. Hansen left the lunch counter and returned an hour later with Long. When Hansen and Long tried to take seats at the lunch counter the store manager asked them to leave. When they refused, the manager called the police and had them arrested.

The arrests helped to muster more support from campus, with more than 100 Philander Smith students holding a march downtown the following day. The threat of more demonstrations with more people involved brought the city's businessmen back to the negotiating table. An agreement was brokered with student and COCA representatives to desegregate downtown lunch counters in the early months of 1963.

Initially, a limited and controlled program of desegregation was agreed upon whereby a small number of African Americans would ask for service at particular stores at a set date and time. Over the course of a few weeks the numbers of those served and the length of their stay would increase. Both sides agreed to notify the local police and the staff at lunch counters in advance to avoid any incidents. On Jan. 2, 1963, Woolworth, McClellan, Walgreen and Blass stores all desegregated their lunch counters.

The successful desegregation of the major lunch counters on Main Street prompted many other smaller businesses to follow suit. By the end of January, several major hotels, motels and a downtown bowling alley had also desegregated. On Feb. 15, federal Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the COCA desegregation lawsuit filed in March 1962. The ruling ordered an end to racial segregation in all public facilities.

In June 1963, the city's movie theaters and Robinson Auditorium admitted African Americans for the first time on an equal basis. By October, most of the city's restaurants had desegregated, as, by the end of the year, had all city parks, playgrounds, golf courses, the Little Rock Zoo, and the Arkansas Arts Center. At the end of 1963, with little drama or fuss, Little Rock had desegregated most of its public and many of its private facilities.

The desegregation of downtown Little Rock did not, however, bring an end to the saga of the sit-ins. There was still the question of what would happen to all of those students whose cases continued to be log-jammed in the courts. A resolution came one step closer in July 1964 when the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed segregation in public facilities and accommodations.

As revealed by documents gathered by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Center for Arkansas History and Culture (based at the Arkansas Studies Institute) for its Law and Civil Rights in Arkansas project, Little Rock played a pivotal role in what happened next. The sit-in cases of two Little Rock students, Frank James Lupper and Thomas B. Robinson, consolidated with the case of South Carolina's Arthur Hamm, were the first sit-in cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In a landmark ruling, the court decided that the 1964 Civil Rights Act meant that all of the sit-in cases pending before the courts in the United States — around 3,000 of them in total — should be dismissed. Little Rock's sit-ins had achieved not only their goal of desegregating downtown city facilities but through the U.S. Supreme Court ruling also helped in bringing a significant chapter in U.S. civil rights history to a close.

In July 2011, Hansen and Long, along with other members of SNCC, returned to Little Rock to reflect on the sit-ins and their work in the state. The conference, hosted by the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center and organized by the UALR History Department and the UALR Institute on Race and Ethnicity, was attended by more than 300 people and was broadcast on C-SPAN (those who missed it can still view it on the C-SPAN website at http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/300407-1).

Hansen and Long, along with the two plaintiffs in the Supreme Court suit, Lupper and Robinson, and one of the first sit-in protestors, Frank James, who now teaches math at Philander Smith, were among the first honorees on the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail, unveiled by the inaugural Institute on Race and Ethnicity director Adjoa Aiyetoro. Hansen and Long were present to view their plaques, which are located on the sidewalk in front of the Old State House Museum at 300 W. Markham St. Ten new plaques will be placed along West Markham and President Clinton Boulevard each July to commemorate the often overlooked stories, like the sit-ins, that give Little Rock and Arkansas such a rich and diverse racial history.

John A. Kirk is Donaghey Professor and chair of the History Department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. His book "Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas" (co-edited with Jennifer Jensen Wallach) was published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2011.

Comments (6)

Showing 1-6 of 6

Add a comment
 

Add a comment

Clicky