When you think about protests, what comes to mind? Marches? Signs? Given the news cycle of the modern world, violent images of angry protesters confronting authority figures with tear gas might come to mind.
Things didn't always use to be like they are today, though. Over 50 years ago, during the Civil Rights Movement, one of the most effective means of protest involved one simple act: sitting. Can you imagine how much was accomplished just by sitting in protest?
A sit-in involves protesters seating themselves in a strategic location, such as a street, inside a restaurant, or in front of a government building. Protesters remain seated until their demands are met or they are evicted or arrested.
Sit-ins have traditionally been one of the more successful non-violent protest strategies. Since they disrupt the normal flow of business, sit-ins draw attention to the protesters' cause. If demands aren't met, eviction or arrest has the further effect of creating sympathy for protesters.
Sit-ins were a particularly-effective part of the nonviolent strategy of civil disobedience that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law effectively ended lawful racial segregation in the United States.
Sit-ins were often organized in segregated areas. The presence of African-Americans sitting in “white only" areas was a powerful impetus to change these outdated and insensitive practices. The history of sit-ins dates back farther than the 1960s, though.
Historians note that sit-ins occurred as early as the late 1930s. For example, African-American attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker led a sit-in at the segregated Alexandria, Virginia, library in August 1939.
One of the most famous sit-ins occurred on February 1, 1960, at the Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Although everyone was free to shop at the Woolworth's department store, the lunch counter in the store, which served food and drinks, was limited to “whites only."
On that fateful day, four African-American college students took seats at the Woolworth's lunch counter and asked for coffee. They were refused service, but instead of leaving, they sat patiently and waited. They continued to sit quietly despite threats and intimidation from customers and other people in the store.
Eventually, their peaceful protest drew the attention of many people in the area. They stayed until the store closed for the day. They showed up again the next day and even more people joined their cause. They continued their sit-in for multiple days.
The Greensboro sit-in spurred a wave of other similar sit-ins in other cities across the South. The largest of the sit-ins to follow occurred in Nashville, Tennessee. The Greensboro sit-in had been effective in bringing the issue of segregation in the South to the attention of the entire nation.