In Honor of MLK: Lunch Counter Sit-Ins of the 1960s


Martin Luther King and associates at the Durham, North Carolina, Woolworth’s lunch counter after it had been closed by the company, February 16, 1960

Sometimes restaurants are good for more than just eating. In honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday, Fork in the Road presents this collection of historic photos from the lunch-counter sit-ins of the early 1960’s, which forever changed the history of the United States.

The sit-in that started it all: From left, Joe McNeil, Franklin McCain, Billy Smith, and Clarence Henderson conducted a 1960 sit-in against segregation at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.

It may be difficult for us to believe now, but in the early 1960s, just 50 years ago, segregation of races in public accommodations was still the rule in many parts of the country — and not just in the Deep South. Seating in lunch counters and other restaurants was typically restricted by race, with some institutions open only to whites, others open to whites and blacks, but forcing blacks to sit in marked-off areas or even eat standing up. Other culture, religious, and racial groups (Chinese and Native Americans among them) were also the subject of similar discrimination.

Though lunch-counter sit-ins began as early as 1957, they didn’t become a focus of national attention until 1960, when a series of demonstrations occurred at Woolworth’s lunch counters. In cities like Greensboro, North Carolina; Jackson, Mississippi; Tallahassee, Florida; and Lychburg, Virginia, many of these eating establishments were emphatically whites-only as a matter of company policy. The Greensboro sit-ins, beginning on February 1, 1960, galvanized the movement, and led to dozens of similar demonstrations.

Sit-in at Woolworth’s in Jacksonville, Florida, 1960

Lunch counter sit-in, Nashville, Tennessee, 1960

Typically, the sit-ins would begin when a group of demonstrators, often from local colleges and including sympathetic white students as well as African Americans, would enter a segregated facility, sit down, try to order something, then refuse to move until they were arrested or the place closed. At first, the response of the Woolworth Corporation — based in New York City — was to simply shut down the lunch counters entirely, hoping the demonstrations would blow over. Eventually, they relented and opened the luncheonettes to all races. It was one of the civil rights movement’s greatest victories.

While many of these demonstrations occurred spontaneously, they were quickly extolled and backed by Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Of the sit-ins, he later wrote in his autobiography, “Spontaneously born, but guided by the theory of nonviolent resistance, the lunch counter sit-ins accomplished integration in hundreds of communities at the swiftest rate of change in the civil rights movement up to that time.” Much like Occupy Wall Street today, the sit-ins spread and spawned a greater struggle, and many sit-in veterans soon created other civil rights organizations, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Here is an excerpt from MLK’s autobiography on the sit-in movement.

Lunch counter sit-in demonstrators heckled and abused, Jackson, Mississippi, 1963.