While the sit-down movement which began in 1960 was, in some ways, a continuation of previous civil rights efforts, it drastically changed the way in which America’s African American community tried to bring about change.
The sit-in demonstrators were certainly influenced by previous movements. They looked, particularly, to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for inspiration. Evidence for this can be found in the guidelines the movement’s originators laid down for other demonstrators to follow, in which they wrote, “REMEMBER-the example and teachings of Martin Luther King who refused to hate anyone, but stood in love and firmness for human dignity and respect.”
Like King’s movement, the sit-in movement used churches to organize, advocated peaceful, rather than violent protest, and involved protesters dressing in their Sunday bests. They also used religion in their demonstrations as King did. The New York Times reported that a group of “well-dressed Negro college students” stood on the sidewalk at Woolworth’s after staging a sit-down and “They formed a tight circle, threw their hands into a pyramid in the center and recited the Lord’s Prayer.”
On the other hand, Franklin McCain, one of the founders of the sit-in movement, suggested that Dr. King had only a little influence on the sit-in movement and that the students, instead, drew inspiration from Gandhi.
Although the movement may have been influenced by King and Gandhi, evidence suggests that the actions of the sit-in demonstrators were a marked departure from the status quo. When McCain and his fellow protester, Joseph McNeil, began talking about staging their first sit-in, McNeil said that they should act, rather than behaving like others who talked a lot but did little The lack of progress of less active protesters, therefore, inspired the sit-in demonstrators to choose another path.
That the protesters were engaging in behavior which had not been engaged in before – at least – not in their cities – was evident from the reactions of both white and black residents in the area. According to McCain, a couple of old ladies in the Woolworth’s store in which the sit-down movement began patted the boys on the back and said, “You should have done it ten years ago.” Yet other citizens urged them not to disturb the status quo. One New York Times article observes that Mayor William G. Enloe berated the students for jeopardizing “Raleigh’s friendly and cooperative race relations”, indicating that people of different races were interacting and that by challenging the unequal treatment of blacks and whites at places like Woolworth’s, the students might cause these relationships to become less friendly.
Another New York Times article about the sits-ins suggests that many whites in Raleigh expected black professionals to be on their side and to warn the demonstrators against protesting. Some black citizens agreed. According to McCain, one black woman who worked at Woolworth’s told the students, “This counter is reserved for white people, it always has been, and you are aware of that. So why don’t you go out and stop making trouble?’ Meanwhile, per McNeil, other black workers in the store looked at him and his demonstrators in disbelief, worrying about their safety.
These reactions seem to indicate that the attitude of many black and white people was that things were alright the way they were and that no one should try to upset the applecart. The prevailing emotion felt by many members of the black communities in cities like Nashville was fear. Reverend C.T. Vivian wrote that many parents feared allowing their students to demonstrate because they believed such actions might go on their records and destroy their futures. The determined students, however, according to Vivian, had made up their minds. They acted against the wishes of their elders to make a difference. This willingness to act, even against the wishes of previous generations suggests that the sit-in movement was something new.
These facts indicate that previous attempts at changing racial relations had involved a great deal of capitulation and perhaps obedience from African Americans and that white citizens had become accustomed to this. The sit-in movement changed the situation. Instead of simply going along with the desires of white residents, black professionals voiced their support for those who had staged sit-ins.
This sit-in movement also changed the mood of the African American community which had been largely fearful of white retaliation. Instead of backing down when others voiced fear, the sit-in demonstrators continued to protest peacefully despite the brutality of those who opposed them. The New York Times reported that although several of the protesters were shoved, sprinkled with “itching powder”, assaulted and egged, police only arrested demonstrators and never touched those who had attacked them.
In some ways, the sit-in movement was a continuation of movements that came before it. Peaceful protests were not new. Martin Luther King Jr. had engaged in them much earlier. Yet the sit-in demonstrations did represent a change from the status quo and they sent the civil rights movement in a new direction, which involved less capitulation and more action on the part of peaceful protesters. The movement inspired activists to act with courage and to put away fear in order to stand up against the oppression they faced in their communities.