Durham students sit-in for U.S. Civil Rights, 1960

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Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
February 16 marked the end of the first wave of sit-ins, although protests continued sporadically after this point.
February 8,
February 16,
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Durham, North Carolina
Desegregation of Durham businesses, lunch counters, and public spaces.

By the late 1950s, civil rights activists were becoming frustrated with the slow pace of desegregation and integration in southern towns and businesses. Youth especially were impatient with white resistance and black adult leadership and urged organizations to adopt more active and militant strategies. In the spring of 1960, these students took matters into their own hands and started a movement that spread through not only North Carolina, but throughout the entire Jim Crow South as well. Beginning with four university students in Greensboro, NC, the sit-in movement of the 1960s breathed new life into the U.S. Civil Rights Movement (see “Greensboro, NC, students sit-in for U.S. Civil Rights, 1960”).

On February 8, 1960 about twenty male and female students from North Carolina College organized their own sit-in at the Woolworth’s, S.H. Kress, and Walgreens lunch counters in downtown Durham. Inspired in part by a profound desire to integrate their own city, the protesters also held the sit-ins to demonstrate their solidarity with the Greensboro students. Within the week, sit-in protests quickly were organized in North Carolina cities such as Charlotte, Raleigh, and Fayetteville and also spread to Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and even Woolworth stores in New York City.

The Durham protesters were mostly North Carolina College students, but the group also included four white Duke students and a white Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) worker, Gordon Carey. Like many of the sit-in protesters, these students were polite, dressed well, and non-violent in their actions. When they were refused service at counters usually reserved for whites, they remained seated in silent protest.

In response to the sit-in store managers and business owners continued to refuse service to the protesters and sometimes even closed the entire store. The first Durham lunch counter targeted by the protesters (Woolworth’s) closed the entire store after someone telephoned in a bomb threat. The second (Kress’s) shut down its lunch counter when the protesters arrived (now between forty and fifty strong) and Walgreens roped off their eating area before the protesters even entered the store. The responses, both by the lunch counters and white patrons, remained relatively non-violent, with only a few documented cases of verbal insults or throwing of food.

The sit-ins in Durham caught the attention of prominent civil rights leaders who became actively involved in the campaign. Though there were no arrests made, the detainment of a white divinity Duke student and Gordon Carey prompted the involvement of Reverend Douglas Moore, leader of the Royal Ice Cream Parlor Sit-in of 1957, and attorney Floyd McKissick, who often took on cases of civil rights violations and unfair discrimination practices. The police hoped to depict the sit-ins as the work of outside white agitators, and though Carey had been invited to Durham by the organizers, his New York residence fed charges that the sit-ins were the work of northern Yankee troublemakers.

The pre-sit-in atmosphere of Durham, however, contradicted this theory. For years, especially in the time after the Royal Ice Cream Parlor Sit-in, civil rights activists had been pushing for increased integration in downtown Durham – everything from movie theaters to bus stations to water fountains. According to Christine Green’s research, the Carolina Times praised the students and justified the sit-ins as the “results of years of pent-up suffering, humiliation and injustices.” Durham’s black Ministerial Alliance, the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, the NAACP, and CORE also publicly endorsed the sit-ins.

The Durham sit-in campaign received its most significant endorsement from Martin Luther King Jr. During the civil rights era, King made five public appearances in Durham, the most dramatic occurring on February 16, 1960, eight days after the sit-ins were initiated. Accompanied by associate Ralph Abernathy, King visited the Durham Woolworth’s and later addressed a standing room only crowd, estimated at about 1,200 people, at White Rock Baptist Church. King’s “fill up the jails” speech inspired students involved in the campaign to continue fighting for their rights, while their campaign inspired King to embrace the sit-ins as a viable method of resistance in the struggle for civil rights.

Durham mayor Emmanuel Evans responded by urging the Human Relations committee to negotiate a settlement with the protesters. Despite reservations, the demonstrators agreed to halt further protests while negotiations proceeded between white officials and black leadership. However, when no agreements could be reached (perhaps in part because none of the demonstrators or organizers were involved in the discussions), protests resumed but on a much smaller scale and a more sporadic manner. The campaign ultimately ended having achieved minor concessions. The cause in Durham would be taken up again in 1963 (see “African American citizens campaign for integration in Durham, N.C., 1963”).

Research Notes

The sit-ins were inspired by the previous sit-in at the Royal Ice Cream Parlor in Durham (1957) and the student sit-in campaign in Greensboro (see "Greensboro, NC, students sit-in for U.S. Civil Rights, 1960”)(1).

The sit-ins continued to spread across segregated cities in the South throughout 1960 (2).

Greene, Christina. “The Durham Movement.” Our Separate Ways: Women and the Black Freedom Movement in Durham, North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. 75-78.

Sitton, Claude. “Negro Sitdowns Stir Fear of Wider Unrest of South.” New York Times 15 Feb. 1960: A1.

Additional Notes: 
Edited by Max Rennebohm (10/09/2011)
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Meghan Auker Becker, 31/01/2010