In the mid 1950’s, segregation was widespread and legally enforced throughout the American south. Birmingham, Alabama was a hotspot of black activism in opposition to segregationist policies. Between December 26, 1956 and November 1958, Birmingham blacks, led by Fred Shuttlesworth and other black ministers, initiated a campaign against the legal segregation of Birmingham buses.
The students of Virginia Union University, a black university, wanted to do something to contribute to the growing sit-in movement that had begun on February 1, 1960, in Greensboro, North Carolina (see “Greensboro, NC, students sit-in for U.S. Civil Rights, 1960”). Led by students Frank Pinkston and Charles Sherrod, who had been counseled on nonviolent protest methods by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., more than 200 Virginia Union students and faculty marched from their campus to Richmond’s downtown shopping district on February 20, 1960.
Throughout most of the U.S. civil rights campaigns of the 1950s, Baton Rouge, Louisiana remained quiet. The city of “broad avenues and tree-lined streets” (Sinclair 1998) remained fully segregated despite movements towards desegregation in neighboring states. However, at the beginning of 1960, when university students staged sit-ins at lunch counters across the south, students at Baton Rouge’s Southern University took notice. Southern University, a black university on the edge of the city, became home to the main civil rights campaign in Baton Rouge.
Cambridge, a small city in Eastern Shore Maryland, was racially divided in 1960 between African Americans and European Americans. Unemployment rates for African Americans were quadruple those of white people and segregation was pervasive in public and private spaces alike.
The Civil Rights Movement in the United States gained momentum in the 1960’s with campaigns and demonstrations taking place throughout the country. Following the success of the 1963 campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, and the strong leadership of that struggle by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), ministers and other activists in Danville, Virginia, decided to start their own campaign. They formed the Danville Christian Progressive Association (DCPA).
Jacksonville, Florida, in 1960 was a city with a population of about 372,600, located in the northeast corner of the state. Of that population, nearly 100,000, or 27%, were African Americans—one of the highest urban concentrations of African Americans in the South. However, despite this high population, a legal mandate segregated the lunch-counters of various downtown department stores. Mayor Haydon Burns endorsed the segregation, telling storeowners not to integrate, despite the fact that they were not all adverse to integration.
On Friday, February 15, 1963, the student-led Civic Interest Group (CIG) began a demonstration against Northwood Theater in Baltimore, Maryland. The ultimately successful demonstration took place in the context of a longer history of protests against the cinema’s white-only policy. Students, mostly from Morgan State College, had picketed the Theater many times over the course of the previous eight years. Student demonstrations organized by student council occurred annually.
In the United States of America, the 1950s saw the emergence of key individuals in the building of the civil rights movement. The struggle for African Americans against their country’s institutionalized racism was highlighted by moments like Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. A preacher by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of nonviolence in his people’s fight for equality. But at the turn of the decade, the civil rights movement trended a different way.
In the 1950’s, Durham North Carolina was like most cities in the South: hot and segregated. At the time, the civil rights movement was already polarizing the nation, with the Montgomery bus boycotts in 1955 bringing to prominence such names as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks (see “African Americans boycott buses for integration in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S., 1955-1956”). In Mississippi, the brutal murder of Emmett Till that same year became an archetype of the horrendous nature of southern racism at its most cruel. Amidst the violence and racial tension, Martin Luther King Jr.
African Americans campaign for desegregation of department store eating facilities in Kansas City, Missouri, 1958-59
By 1955 in Kansas City, most public facilities and privately owned businesses were desegregated. However, a report by William Gremley of the Human Relations Commission (HRC) identified the problem and criticized the practice of segregated eating establishments as harmful to race relations, unethical, and unattractive to prospective conventions and foreign dignitaries. In March 1957, Gremley attempted to address this issue and meet with William G. Austin, manager of the KC Merchants' Association, but Austin never followed through.
In the late 1950s, Louisville, Kentucky, became known as a regional leader in race relations due to the passage of peaceful school integration laws in 1956. Although laws targeting segregation had been passed, Louisville’s public accommodations continued to be segregated. This persistence of inequality between the African Americans and the European Americans spurred much protest in the black community, especially among youth.
Young people powered a major part of the civil rights movement in the United States. In particular, sit-ins proved to be a powerful tool that students across the country utilized. One of the biggest student sit-ins took place in Baltimore in 1960. The goal of the sit-in was to desegregate department store restaurants. Despite only lasting three weeks, the campaign was very successful.
In 1957, in an effort to frustrate increasing black voter registration and the threat of losing a white voter majority, Alabama state senator Sam Engelhardt sponsored Act 140, which proposed to transform the Tuskegee City boundaries from a square into a twenty-eight sided shape resembling a “seahorse” that included every single one of the 600 white voters and excluded all but 5 of the 400 black voters.
A Read’s Drug Store was built at the corner of Howard and Lexington Streets in 1934, when it was first praised as a local landmark and the modern flagship store for the chain. The store was located at the center of the downtown shopping district and the business grew as Read’s drug store expanded throughout downtown Baltimore and surrounding regions.