Sit-Ins to Stand Up

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the sit-ins of the civil rights movement.

By Simran Bedi.


The 1960s in the U.S. are often characterized by the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, the Cold War and, of course, the Civil Rights Movement. The early ‘60s were a time when Jim Crow laws were still around and people all across the nation were protesting in various ways. Four African American students at a college in Greensboro, NC protested by sitting down at a segregated lunch counter on Feb 1, 1960.[1] The students, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond, were refused service that day but little did they know this was the beginning of something much bigger.

A black and white photo of the Greensboro 4 eating at a packed dining hall
Figure 1: The Greensboro 4- left to right, Joseph McNeill, David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Jibreel Khazan[2]

In the following days, hundreds of people participated in the sit-in and it picked up news coverage. After Dr. King organized a conference, the sit-ins really took off, resulting in thousands of participants and the creation of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee.[3] By May of 1960, every Southern state experienced sit-ins, all planned by students.[4] Students were getting arrested even though every sit-in was peaceful and nonviolent. So they began training themselves before sitting in, in order to better endure the violent tactics police used against them.[5]

Two black and white photos stacked on top of each other. In the top photo, three yound men stand facing each other and blow smoke into the center. On the bottom photo, a young man and woman are being held up by the hair. They both look discontent and their faces are wet.
Students preparing themselves for the abuses they could endure for sitting in [6]
Orangeburg, South Carolina, was the site of a sit-in with more than a thousand students participating peacefully. But the demonstration was met with violence when the students refused to leave, and they were attacked and arrested. Matthew Perry, an attorney for the NAACP at the time, was able to get all the fines dropped and defended the 341 students who were convicted. Perry, later to be the first African-American attorney from the Deep South to be appointed to the federal judiciary in 1976, got thousands of students released for these unfair arrests.[7][8]

The sit-ins led to boycotts of places that refused to desegregate, causing a tremendous loss of revenue for those businesses. The Woolworth’s store in Greensboro lost around $200,000, and only months after the famous sit-in, it was finally desegregated.[10] Similar cases were seen all across the South. Even if business owners were racist, they couldn’t afford to continue to be segregated, so desegregation spread rapidly – the sit-in movement worked. Four years after the Greensboro sit-in, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and outlawed segregation in employment, voting and public facilities.[11]

Black and white photo of a protest outside of Woolworth’s in Harlem
Protest outside of Woolworth’s in Harlem[9]

[1] “Sitting down to Take a Stand.” US Civil Rights Trail. Accessed August 29, 2021.

[2] Simkins, Chris. “Remembering the 1960s ‘Sit-in’ Civil Rights Movement.VOA, February 12, 2014.

[3] “Sitting down to Take a Stand.” US Civil Rights Trail. Accessed August 29, 2021.

[4] Fuller, Helen. 25 Apr – 2 May 1960. Article: Reprint, The Sit-In Protest. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, Race Relations in America, [Accessed August 23, 2021].

[5] “Civil Rights Movement Photographs the Sit-Ins – off Campus and into Movement.” Civil Rights Movement — Images of a Peoples’ Movement. Accessed August 29, 2021.

[6]Civil Rights Movement Photographs the Sit-Ins – off Campus and into Movement.” Civil Rights Movement — Images of a Peoples’ Movement. Accessed August 29, 2021.

[7] LeBlanc, Clif. “Matthew Perry: To Him Life and the Law Are One.The State, November 2015.

[8]Justice Matthew Perry.” South Carolina African American History Calendar. Accessed August 29, 2021.

[9]Civil Rights Movement Photographs the Sit-Ins – off Campus and into Movement.” Civil Rights Movement – Images of a Peoples’ Movement. Accessed August 29, 2021.

[10]Sitting down to Take a Stand.” US Civil Rights Trail. Accessed August 29, 2021.

[11] “Timeline of Desegregation and Civil Rights.” Accessed August 29, 2021.