Sit-ins, Shock Troops and School Integration

Fay Mitchell

North Carolina has been at the center of several moments and movements in the progression toward civil rights and equality for African Americans. The 1960s were a time of turbulence and upheaval, and no small measure happened in this state. Young people and student activists have often been catalysts to the seasons of change.

The much-celebrated Greensboro sit-in on February 1, 1960, launched a movement across the South. Four N.C. A & T State University students sat down at Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter and waited to be served. Freshmen Ezell Blair (later Jibrell Khazan), Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil and David L. Richmond were tired of demeaning treatment by local businesses. Area media attention led to national coverage and sit-ins followed across the South. Thousands of others joined the Greensboro protests and after six months lunch counters and other facilities were integrated.

But even before the 1960 Greensboro sit-in there was a protest in Durham on June 23, 1957, at Royal Ice Cream Company. Rev. Douglas Moore and six youth gathered at Asbury Temple Methodist Church before going to the ice cream parlor and sitting in booths. They were arrested and found guilty of trespassing. The story was front page news in Durham and in the African American newspaper “The Carolinian,” but was buried inside the Raleigh “News and Observer.” The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case on appeal and the Durham sit-in became a footnote in history.

Just two months after the start of the Woolworth’s sit-in, students from across the south gathered at Shaw University in Raleigh. The 150 students from 10 states aimed to consolidate sit-in efforts and map a strategy. The conference was convened by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Executive Director Ella Baker, a Shaw graduate. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born. The SNCC meeting in May drew Marion Barry, who became mayor of Washington, D.C., John Lewis, a long-serving congressman from Georgia and Stokely Carmichael, who became a prominent leader in the Black Panther Party. SNCC members considered the established Civil Rights groups too conservative and were the “shock troops” of the movement, especially in Mississippi and in Freedom Summer of 1964.

Another major battle in North Carolina involved school desegregation. In 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court effectively ruled that “freedom of choice” plans were inadequate to bring about school integration and that proactive steps were necessary. A pivotal case advancing school desegregation was that of Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, decided in 1971.

The decision led to the establishment of busing as a valid tool to achieve school integration. Charlotte became known as “the city that made desegregation work.” School busing became a widely used tool throughout the South. Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools created a system of magnet schools in 1992 to reduce busing, and in 1997 a federal court ruled that the goals of unified school system had been met. Following additional litigation, in 2002 the federal order on school busing to achieve integration in Charlotte ended.