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CORE activists practice nonviolent action at Miami lunch counters, 1959
By the late 1950s, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was nearly two decades old, and had grown to successfully organize a national network of interracial, nonviolent direct-action cells working towards integration and civil rights for African Americans. CORE’s interracial approach stemmed from their assertion that the race problem is a human, social problem applicable to all people. Their incredible growth between 1957 and 1959 stemmed not only from the added support of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and other prominent voices of the emerging civil rights movement, but also from the effectiveness and popularity of their annual Interracial Action Institute.
The CORE Interracial Action Institute gathered students from around the country for two weeks of nonviolent direct-action training, study, and reflection. Organizers in the host city would often investigate suspected areas or businesses of discrimination and select sites for action during the institute. Students were asked by CORE to “learn by doing” and take the skills and insight gained back to their respective cities.
In 1959 CORE chose Miami, Florida for the site of their Interracial Action Institute (called the 1959 September Action Institute in some texts). CORE saw the opportunity in Miami to fight racial problems of the Deep South while also being able to house all students and live interracially. Miami was home to a relatively large liberal population, so CORE leaders also saw the city as a place where “varied action projects can be carried on to give Institute members experience useful in the Border and Northern States as well as the Deep South.” National CORE leaders joined the Greater Miami CORE chapter in planning the institute.
CORE began the Miami Interracial Action Institute (MIAI) on September 5, 1959. CORE leaders and students also began sit-ins at Jackson’s-Byron’s and Grant’s Department Stores’ lunch counters on this day. Though unclear, according to past CORE procedure, it is likely that members of Greater Miami CORE investigated these stores and circulated polls amongst customers before selecting them for the site of the sit-ins. CORE considered the sit-in their oldest and most frequently used technique and often orchestrated sit-ins in units of three people, “one Negro, one white, and one interracial.”
Students of the MIAI maintained the sit-ins during the day and reflected and studied upon the results at night during nonviolent direct action workshops. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., assisted in the training for one of these sessions.
The sit-in at Grant’s Department Store ran from the beginning of the institute to the end on September 20. As many as 40 activists sat from three to six hours daily. The management at Grant’s Department Store chose to close rather than serve African Americans.
Though unclear, it appears as though students began the Jackson’s-Byron’s lunch counter sit-in later in the institute. After one week of interracial students quietly sitting and waiting for service, the management closed the lunch counters to discuss their next steps.
On September 19, 1959, the Jackson’s-Byron’s representative informed CORE that the lunch counters would be desegregated beginning September 21. When four black CORE students were refused service on that day, CORE chose to reactivate the sit-in. After a brief reorganization, CORE recommenced the sit-in at Jackson’s-Byron’s lunch counter on September 23. CORE filled every seat at the lunch counter from 10:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. The sit-in was interrupted and ended on September 25 when police began to hassle and arrest the CORE protestors and local white racists violently attacked some of the students.
Though neither of CORE’s sit-ins was immediately successful in desegregating the lunch counters at Jackson’s-Byron’s and Grant’s Department Stores they both succeeded in educating and empowering institute students with the power of nonviolent direct-action. Though the specific role of the MIAI in inspiring the wave of successful student sit-ins through the south in the early 1960s is difficult to quantify, there is a direct link between the MIAI and the Tallahassee sit-ins of the following year (see “Tallahassee, Florida, students sit-in for U.S. Civil Rights, 1960”). A Florida A&M student had attended the MIAI, and began a Tallahassee chapter of CORE in October 1959. Patricia Stephens, also of Tallahassee CORE and the MIAI reflected that because she “studied the theory of nonviolence and learned the CORE method through using it in action projects” she found that “when the sit-ins began in February  we were prepared in Tallahassee.”