By Emily Novogradac
Before enrolling in this course, my knowledge of African American history was sparse. It was challenging to find one single artifact in which I wanted to learn more. There have been so many important and historic artifacts that have defined the lives of many individuals, I wanted to learn more about many, but ultimately I chose a photograph from a time I thought I knew the most about. Quickly, I found I was only aware of the most basic history, and had much more to learn.
Throughout my education career, I have never gone through a truly in depth discovery of the Civil Rights Movement. It was not until my third year of college that I learned there was much more to the story than meets the eye. For example, Rosa Parks’ refusal to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white man, was most definitely not her first act of rebelliousness to benefit the Civil Rights Movement, and it was most certainly not her last. Teaching is focused on Martin Luther King Jr. and left out are other people such as Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, as well as Angela Davis. The importance of the Civil Rights Movement to both African American history as well as America’s history overall, is immense, and the lack of attention it receives in general school education is disappointing. One thing that was eliminated most were sit-ins that were put on by college students during the 1960’s, specifically the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in that took place in Greensboro, North Carolina. Without having knowledge about what was going on outside that diner in Greensboro, it seems almost impossible to know the impact it would all have as the Civil Rights Movement progressed.
Those influential people, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hammer, etc., influenced the college students to take a stand of their own. Sit-ins, by these college students, are not widely learned in many high schools. Without further education, it is difficult for you to comprehend what exactly was going down in Greensboro, for example, why were the college students compelled to go and sit in a place they knew they would not be welcomed? What gave them the confidence and ideas to do these sit-ins?
This particular photo is of four freshman from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro; they are sitting at the lunch counter of a F. W. Woolworth store in the same city. They were refused service, but continued to stay at the counter until closing time. This was the first day of their many days of sit-ins. On the second day, they were joined by twenty-five more students, the following day sixty-three students joined the four, and the fourth day, three white female students from the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina joined. The sit-in ended up drawing more than three hundred demonstrators by the fifth day, resulting in the arrest of forty-five students on the charges of trespassing. This caused a massive boycott of stores that had segregated lunch counters, affecting sales by one third. Six months after the first sit-in the four original college students featured in the photograph returned to Woolworth’s and were served at the counter they were once denied (“African American Odyssey”).
The Civil Rights Movement was a crucial part for the history of the United States. It was a time where not much was in favor of the African Americans. While there were many riots and demonstrations taking place there was one in particular that these four African American men were combating when they decided to sit at the counter in Greensboro; these were the Jim Crow Laws that were enacted in 1881 and were finally overruled in 1964. African Americans went from having Slave Codes to Black Codes and then finally Jim Crow Laws, all being ways that whites could legally have power over them. The Jim Crow laws created de jure segregation, or segregation that is rooted in law; (Pittman, 19 November 2015), the most common was the illegality of interracial marriage. In both the North and the South, African Americans lived in primarily black neighborhoods while whites lived in primarily white neighborhoods, and attended schools that followed that same suit. Although the Jim Crow Laws created de jure segregation, this other form of segregation was formed by history and attitudes of African Americans (Tischauser XI). De facto segregation is segregation that is a “matter of fact,” such as whites and blacks living in their respective neighborhoods (Pittman, 19 November 2015). Within the Jim Crow Laws, there was one Supreme Court decision that was causing the public separation, that being the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision of 1896. Plessy vs. Ferguson decided the clause “separate but equal” should be mandated, further upholding the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public spaces, completely backing up the Jim Crow Laws of that time (Pittman, 12 December 2015).
Because the Jim Crow Laws were operating in both the North and South there were many organizations that African Americans created and joined to fight the injustice they were living. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and Rosa Parks was refusing to give up her seat on the bus as well as becoming involved in the Montgomery bus boycotts, there was a committee that was formed by students who attended Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, so they could help fight. This committee was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The SNCC’s goals were to speak for the needs of the community, this was significant to the Black Power slogan. Practically since its beginning, the SNCC fought to address two problems: that black Americans were poor and they were black. They did this by starting a program that aimed to give political power to impoverished Southern blacks (Marable 443). One of the SNCC’s goals was to gain African Americans the right to vote, this was their ideal commitment from 1961 to 1965. They were able to help establish the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), and their efforts were helped when the Voters Rights Act was passed in 1965 (Marable 443-444). The SNCC’s bravery when faced with physical and verbal abuse led to the integration of many stores even before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“African American Odyssey”). Some people need to take a lesson from these college students, in that violence is most definitely not always the correct response.
Although this all seems so far in our past, it was a shock that there is still similar amounts of segregation today as there was back in the 1960’s. The Jim Crow Laws are no longer in effect, but there were massive repercussions that many did not anticipate. For example, schools are still as segregated as they were after Brown vs. Board. Because schools are still as segregated as they were back then, there is still a huge discrepancy in the teachings of African American history. Growing up in a primarily white town and going to a predominately white school I learned mostly about white history. People look at this photograph and realize how ridiculous it was that there were laws that prevented people from going certain places and doing certain things, when in reality there is still some of this present in our society today. For example, de facto is in full force when an African American may be purchasing a home and their realtor steers them in the direction of a primarily black neighborhood, furthering segregation in the housing department of society. For segregation to end, society needs to learn that even though there are no current laws in place it is still a problem.
“African American Odyssey: Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-in.” . 09 December 2015. Web.
Marable, Manning, and Leith Mullings. “Let Nobody Turn us Around: An African American Anthology.” Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009. Print.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. “The Great Migration.” African American Studies 101. Seattle: University of Washington. 19 November 2015. Lecture.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. “The Second Reconstruction.” African American Studies 101. Seattle: University of Washington. 1 December 2015. Lecture.
Tischauser, Leslie. Jim Crow Laws. Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2012. Print.