Sit-ins reinvigorated the civil rights movement in the 1960s. State laws imposed segregation in public life throughout the South at that time and private businesses, such as hotels, restaurants and theaters, would routinely deny service to black people.
On Feb. 1, 1960, students across the South started to change that. Four freshmen black students at North Carolina A&T sat down at a whites-only lunch counter at the Woolworth Department Store in Greensboro. They were Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond and Franklin McCain.
"My parents grew up and carried the scars of racial segregation," McNeil, a retired Air Force Reserve Major General, told USA Today. "I didn’t want to see my children have to face the same problem. We just felt that this certainly was a time to act. If not now, when? If not my generation, what generation?" Within days of the Greensboro sit-in, other sit-ins were happening all over the South. By October, sit-ins had taken place in 112 Southern cities.
On Feb. 13, 1960, 124 Nashville students, including John Lewis who is now a congressman, went to Woolworth, S.H. Kress and McClellan and sat down at the lunch counters and asked to be served. "We don’t serve (expletive) here," a waitress told Lewis. After a few hours, the students left without being served but they returned again and again over the next weeks. With their numbers growing, they expanded their protests to a Grants and a Walgreens. Sometimes they were beat and spat upon by angry white hecklers. On Feb. 27, Nashville police arrested 81 students. The sit-ins were still occurring in April and were combined with a boycott of downtown merchants as Easter approached.
The success of the boycott led Nashville Mayor Ben West to offer a compromise, in which for a three-month trial period blacks would be served in a separate area of the restaurants. The offer was rejected and the sit-ins continued.
On April 19, the home of the student’s attorney, Z. Alexander Looby, was bombed, prompting thousands of people, black and white, to march on city hall. One of the student leaders, Diane Nash asked, "Mayor, do you recommend that the lunch counters be desegregated?" After a short pause, the mayor answered, "Yes."
On May 10, six Nashville stores — Kress, Woolworth, McClellan, Grants, Walgreens and Cain-Sloan — served black customers at their lunch counters for the first time.
Martin Luther King said that the Nashville sit-ins were "the best organized and most disciplined in the Southland."
All told, some 100,000 students are estimated to have participated in the sit-ins across the nation with 3,000 arrested in 1960 alone. "Had not all of that transpired, we would not have had the victory of 2008," said Amelia Parker, the executive director of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, N.C.
These sit-ins provided the impetus for passage of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which states: "All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin … "
This law applies to hotels, restaurants, places of entertainment and virtually any other business that affects interstate commerce. Each of these establishments "which serves the public is a place of public accommodation within the meaning of this title if its operations affect commerce, or if discrimination or segregation by it is supported by State action…"
"Discrimination or segregation by an establishment is supported by State action within the meaning of this title if such discrimination or segregation (1) is carried on under color of any law, statute, ordinance, or regulation; or (2) is carried on under color of any custom or usage required or enforced by officials of the State or political subdivision thereof; or (3) is required by action of the State or political subdivision thereof."
According to a Justice Department summary, a lawsuit can be brought by the Department of Justice under Title II "when there is reason to believe that a person has engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination in violation of Title II. The Department can obtain injunctive, but not monetary, relief in such cases. Individuals can also file suit to enforce their rights under Title II and other federal and state statutes may also provide remedies for discrimination in places of public accommodation."
The Arkansas legislature has passed a bill entitled "The Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act." This terrible law actually states: "A county, municipality or other political subdivision of the state shall not adopt or enforce an ordinance, resolution, rule or policy that creates a protected classification or prohibits discrimination on a basis not contained in state law."
This law is intended to protect those who want to discriminate against others, based on sexual orientation, in matters of housing, employment and commerce. Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he will allow this bill to become law without his signature. Arkansas governors have used this option in the past when they do not support a bill but believe their veto would be overridden by a majority in both houses of the legislature.
Another bill that the Arkansas House has passed and is awaiting Senate approval is called "The Conscience Protection Act." This bill also is aimed at allowing discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation. Some may even attempt to use its protections to discriminate against people of the Muslim faith or some other religious minority.
Both of these bills are obvious attempts to give the state’s blessing to discriminatory actions and to prevent local governments from passing ordinances to prevent such discrimination. These discriminatory acts are a tremendous embarrassment to Arkansas. We join Tennessee as the only two states to stoop so low as to write such discrimination into state law although Texas is considering doing the same thing.
Arkansas legislators could learn a lot from Dean Smith, the legendary North Carolina basketball coach. Smith, who died recently, is mainly remembered for his great North Carolina teams with players like Michael Jordan but he was also a great champion of civil rights. While in high school in Topeka, Kan., during the 1940s, he tried to convince his principal to combine the black and white basketball teams at his school. One of his proudest achievements occurred in 1966 when he recruited Charlie Scott, who was the first black scholarship athlete at North Carolina University.
Perhaps the most remarkable story about Dean Smith had little to do with basketball.
In the summer of 1962, Dean Smith had just completed his first season as head coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels. His record that year was eight wins and nine losses so at that time he was not terribly loved by North Carolina basketball fans. The team often had pregame meals at a local restaurant called the Pines, which did not admit blacks. Smith was asked by his Baptist pastor, Bob Seymour, to help integrate the restaurant. One evening that summer he showed up at the Pines with Pastor Seymour and a young black theology student named James Forbes.
Dean Smith recalled the event this way: "Bob called me and asked if I would accompany him and a black student to the Pines restaurant for dinner. I was an appropriate one to go, because it was a tradition for the basketball team to eat pregame meals there. The three of us walked in and took a table," said Smith in his book, A Coach’s Life. "If the patrons or staff were shocked, I do not recall it. I had read accounts that claim we were received with stunned silence and glares, but I do not think that was the case. The only thing a little awkward was a slight delay in seating us, as the hostess sized up the situation and looked to the manager about how to proceed. We ordered, were served, visited and ate without incident. That was it. How ridiculous it all seems now."