Andrew B. Lewis: The Sit-Ins That Changed America





[Andrew B. Lewis is the author of"The Shadows of Youth: The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation."] The "sixties" were born on Feb. 1, 1960, 50 years ago this week, when four African American college students staged the first sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Since then, the mythology of the '60s has dominated the idea of youthful activism.

Of the three big events of the early civil rights movement -- the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott and the sit-ins -- the sit-ins have always been the least understood and, yet, the most important for today's young activists.

We forget how troubled the civil rights movement was in January 1960. It was six years after Brown, but fewer than 1 in 100 black students in the South attended an integrated school. And during the four years after the end of the bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. struggled to build on that victory. Many worried that the civil rights movement had ground to a halt. Then Greensboro changed everything....

The contrast with King's early efforts was stark. He had worked hard during the bus boycott to prevent arrests. To his thinking, only protests that remained within the bounds of the law could win the war against Jim Crow. The NAACP similarly believed in the power of the courts to end school segregation. But such efforts were so bureaucratic that ordinary African Americans often felt more like observers than participants.

To their African American contemporaries, the college students seemed the unlikeliest group to revive the civil rights movement. Just three years earlier, E. Franklin Frazier, the eminent black sociologist, had condemned them for believing that "money and conspicuous consumption are more important than knowledge." What did Frazier miss?

He failed to see how the comfort of postwar affluence and popular culture bred agitation and activism as easily as it did indifference and apathy. The sit-ins owed more to Little Richard and Levi's than to Jesus and the Bible....

The students... formed their own organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC soon emerged as the most dynamic, creative and influential civil rights organization in the '60s....

Fifty years later, my students tend to see SNCC's members as mythic figures, a "greatest generation" of activists whose achievements they cannot equal. But I remind them of what they have in common with the SNCC generation. Both have been condemned by adults for their materialism, pop culture and assumed political apathy. Both grew up in a period of relative prosperity that left them comfortable but also unsatisfied. Both came of age when new forms of communication -- TV then, the Internet now -- unsettled politics....

Related Links




comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list