by Rhone Fraser
To hear some tell it, the Freedom Movement, complete with sit-ins and the rest, was a spontaneous affair. Not so, says scholar Rhone Fraser. To overlook the skillful planning and visionary foresight that went into the Movement is not only an insult against our forbears who pulled this off, but renders us unable to learn from their example.
It Took Brains, Sweat, Planning and Organization
by Rhone Fraser
"The sit-in movement was built upon deep layers of African American organizational experience stretching back generations."
The American civil rights narrative has too often been reduced to a tale of spontaneous invention, rather than the product of intense debate, meticulous planning and, often, tactical and strategic genius on the part of the organizers. It's long past time to tell the truth about this watershed moment in the Black radical tradition.
The sit-ins at public accommodations between 1957 and 1960 ushered in a critical period in U.S. history. In this form of social protest, people literally sat down at racially segregated facilities such as a lunch counters to force the public and politicians to confront the issue of desegregation.
Sit-ins became the cornerstone of evolving civil rights activity. Occurring in clusters in the late 1950s, the early sit-ins culminated in a larger, more deliberate sit-in movement that seized national attention at a Greensboro, North Carolina lunch counter on February 1, 1960. However, the full-blown, post-Greensboro wave of sit-ins could not have been so strikingly successful had it not been for organizational experience garnered during the protests of the late Fifties. Sociologist Aldon Morris writes that by1960:
"[S]tudents and seasoned activists were able to rapidly coordinate the sit-ins because both were anchored to the same organization. This vast internal organization consisted of local movement centers, experienced activists who had amassed organizing skills, direct-action organizations, communication systems between centers, pre-existing strategies for dealing with the opposition, workshops and training procedures, fund raising techniques, and community mobilization techniques."i
This challenges previous scholarship about the sit-ins by Howard Zinn who wrote that in this period, "spontaneity and self-sufficiency were the hallmarks of the sit-ins; without adult advice or consent, the students planned and carried them through."ii However, the perception that sit-ins occurred without adult advice is simply not supported by the historical record, and needs correction.
"The post-Greensboro wave of sit-ins could not have been so strikingly successful had it not been for organizational experience garnered during the protests of the late Fifties."
Aldon Morris says other viewpoints on the sit-in movement, from August Meier, Elliot Rudwick, Louis Lomax and others have "have persistently portrayed pre-existing organization as an after-the-fact accretion on student spontaneity. The dominant view is that SCLC, CORE, NAACP, and community leaders rushed into a dynamic campus movement after it was well underway."iii Morris argues the opposite: that the pre-existing organizations of the late 1950s provided the sit-ins with the resources and communication networks needed for their emergence and development. Between February 1st and March 30th of 1960, major sit-in demonstrations and related activity had been conducted in at least sixty-nine Southern cities.
The very rapid spread of sit-ins in 1960 was due to the pre-existing organizational structures of the late 1950s. Spontaneous decisions had very little to do with the growing phenomenon, which was in fact a carefully planned, systematic attack on racial segregation. The 1960 Greensboro sit-in marked the apex of the civil rights movement, after which time people who conducted sit-ins did so with a greater knowledge of mutual support than those before February 1st.
An examination of two sit-in leaders whose activism was effective both before and after February 1st illustrates the influence of the pre-existing organizational support that eventually led to the toppling of Jim Crow. I chose to focus on Ronald Walters and James Lawson because of their unique work in making sit-ins so effective. Ronald Walters, now a Professor of Political Science at the University of Maryland, College Park, established the model of the lunch counter sit-in, while James Lawson, a civil rights icon who is now a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt University, perfected this model. Both men's goals were to ensure the full and complete integration of the segregated lunch counter. Both activists contribute significantly to the black radical tradition before and after the first of February, 1960 in ways that disprove the notion that student sit-ins were "spontaneous."
"The very rapid spread of sit-ins was the result of a carefully planned, systematic attack on racial segregation."
In 1958, then twenty-year-old NAACP Youth Council member Ronald Walters began sit-ins at the F.W. Woolworth's drugstore in downtown Wichita, Kansas. Aldon Morris writes that Walters knew Clara Luper, an NAACP Youth Council leader in Oklahoma City, who organized her own sit-ins in less than a week after Walters' sit-in in her town. Working through CORE and the local NAACP Youth Council, Clara Luper's personal friend, Mrs. Shirley Scaggins, organized another group of sit-ins in nearby Tulsa. The first sit-in cluster began in Oklahoma and then spread to cities within a hundred mile radius via established organizational and personal networks.iv Walters writes that the sit-ins in Oklahoma City were followed by protest demonstrations in the Midwest such as one in St. Louis that began on February 14th, 1959, initiated by the NAACP Youth group led by William Clay,v who went on to become a U.S. Congressman. Arguably, Ronald Walters started the chain of lunch counter sit-ins that spread from Wichita, Kansas, to Oklahoma City, to Tulsa, then to St. Louis within a few months. This chain of actions undoubtedly led to the pre-existing organization that triggered the huge wave of sit-ins after the Greensboro protest of February, 1960.
In Nashville, Tennessee, in 1958 James Lawson and other Nashville clergy began conducting what were called "nonviolent workshops" - classes in which Lawson taught local college students the philosophy and tactics of nonviolence protest.vi Many of the students in Lawson's workshops would become future officers of the main organization at the vanguard of the sit-in movement: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lawson's mentoring of such future SNCC leaders as John Lewis (now a U.S. Congressman) and Diane Nash was an important part of his contribution to radical activism both before and after February 1st, 1960. Journalist David Halberstam writes that Nashville mayor Ben West's decision to finally integrate the lunch counters came from a direct dialogue with one of Lawson's students, Diane Nash:
"Now standing on the top of the courthouse steps, facing the mayor, she [Nash] who had once been so afraid of confrontation...could look at Ben West and see how vulnerable he was. What she said next, she later noted, came to her like a divine inspiration. Or if not divine inspiration, at least a remembrance of what Jim Lawson had taught them, that they had to get people...to see one another as human beings instead of enemies. So she asked Ben West to use the prestige of his office to end racial segregation...'Yes,' he found himself saying...They had won, she was sure. The next day's Tennessean banner headline said it all: INTEGRATE COUNTERS - MAYOR."vii
The February - May, 1960 Nashville sit-ins and scores of others that year are often described as "inspired" by the Greensboro protests that also began in February. In fact, 1960 marked an escalation of a civil rights offensive that had begun carefully mapping its way in the Fifties. The sit-in movement was, in turn, built upon deep layers of African American organizational experience stretching back generations.
"Black folks did not simply clap and sway their way into winning strategies to defeat Jim Crow."
Thus, even this brief snapshot of the pre- and post-1960 sit-ins, and a few of the individuals involved, puts the lie to the common, essentially racist assumption that Black folks of the period acted on impulse rather than forethought; that they somehow clapped and swayed their way into the winning strategies that brought down the fortresses of Jim Crow. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The two notables who are the focus of the study in which I am currently immersed - Ronald Walters and James Lawson - are important personages whose activism spans several distinct periods of the modern Black Freedom Struggle, and remain prodigiously active to this day. Their protégés, and those who were mentored and inspired by others, proceeded to change the world - and were themselves transformed in the process.
Spontaneity had very little to do with it.
The author would like to dedicate this article to a devoted nonviolent minister in the true Christian sense, Christopher Staniel Simmons, 1979-2006.
Rhone Fraser is an independent journalist who writes and produces for Pacifica WBAI radio's Arts Magazine Program. A graduate student, he is completing a study of the sit-in movement. Fraser recently wrote a documentary play on the life of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and can be reached at [email protected].
i Morris, Aldon. "Black Southern Student Sit-in Movement: An Analysis of Internal Organization" American Sociological Review. 46(6) (December 1981): 764.
iiZinn, Howard. SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Boston: Beacon, 1964: 29.
iiiMorris, Aldon. "Black Southern Student Sit-in Movement: An Analysis of Internal Organization" American Sociological Review. 46(6) (December 1981):762.
vWalters, Ronald. "Standing Up in America's Heartlands: Sitting in Before Greensboro." American Visions magazine. February/March 1993: 6. Also at: http://www.academy.umd.edu/aboutus/news/articles/2-1993.htm
viMorris, Aldon. "Black Southern Student Sit-in Movement: An Analysis of Internal Organization" American Sociological Review. 46(6) (December 1981):762.p.749.
viiHalberstam, David. The Children. New York: Random House, 1998: 233-234.