Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

Chapter 14: The Sit-In Movement

Main content start
Book cover - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

A generation of young people has come out of decades of shadows to face naked state power; it has lost its fears, and experienced the majestic dignity of a direct struggle for its own liberation. These young people have connected up with their own history-the slave revolts, the incomplete revolution of the Civil War, the brotherhood of colonial colored men in Africa and Asia. They are an integral part of the history which is reshaping the world, replacing a dying order with modern democracy.

  • February 1, 1960 King moves with family to Atlanta; in Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter sit-in movement begins
  • February 17 Is arrested and charged with falsifying his 1956 and 1958 Alabama state income tax returns
  • April 15 Speaks at founding conference of the Student NonviolentCoordinating Committee (SNCC)
  • May 28 Is acquitted of tax evasion by an all-white jury in Montgomery

After four years as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association and five years as president of Montgomery, I decided to move from Montgomery to Atlanta. I would become copastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and thereby have more time and a better location to direct the Southwide campaigns of the SCLC.

For a year the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been pleading with me to give it the maximum of my time, since the time was ripe for expanded militant action across the South. After giving the request serious and prayerful consideration, I came to the conclusion that I had a moral obligation to give more of my time and energy to the whole South. This was only possible by moving closer to the headquarters where transportation was more flexible and time hitherto consumed in longer travel could be saved and utilized for planning, directing, and supervising. 

So I had the painful experience of having to leave Montgomery for Atlanta. It was not easy for me to decide to leave a community where bravery, resourcefulness, and determination had shattered the girders of the old order and weakened confidence of the rulers, despite their centuries of unchallenged rule. It was not easy to decide to leave a city whose Negroes resisted injustice magnificently and followed a method of nonviolent struggle that became one of the glowing epics of the twentieth century. I hated to leave Montgomery, but the people there realized that the call from the whole South was one that could not be denied. 

This was the creative moment for a full-scale assault on the system of segregation. The time had come for a bold, broad advance of the Southern campaign for equality.

Farewell Message to Dexter Congregation

Unknowingly and unexpectedly, I was catapulted into the leadership of the Montgomery Movement. At points I was unprepared for the symbolic role that history had thrust upon me. But there was no way out. I, like everybody in Montgomery, was pulled into the mainstream by the rolling tides of historical necessity. As a result of my leadership in the Montgomery movement, my duties and activities tripled. A multiplicity of new responsibilities poured in upon me in almost staggering torrents. So I ended up futilely attempting to be four or five men in one. One would have expected that many of these responsibilities would have tapered off after the boycott. But now, three years after the termination of the bus struggle, the same situation stands. At points the demands have increased.

November 29, 1959 

I felt terribly frustrated over my inability to retreat, concentrate, and reflect. Even when I was writing Stride Toward Freedom I would only take off one or two weeks at a time. After returning from India I decided that I would take one day a week as a day of silence and meditation. This I attempted on several occasions, but things began to pile up so much that I found myself using that particular day as a time to catch up on so many things that had accumulated. I knew that I could not continue to live with such a tension-filled schedule. My whole life seemed to be centered around giving something out and only rarely taking something in. My failure to reflect would do harm not only to me as a person, but to the total movement. For that reason I felt a moral obligation to do it. 

One of my reasons for moving to Atlanta was to meet this problem head-on. I felt that I would have more time to meditate and think through the total struggle ahead. Unfortunately, however, things happened which made my schedule more crowded in Atlanta than it was in Montgomery.

The student demonstrations

In 1960 an electrifying movement of Negro students shattered the placid surface of campuses and communities across the South. The young students of the South, through sit-ins and other demonstrations, gave America a glowing example of disciplined, dignified nonviolent action against the system of segregation. Though confronted in many places by hoodlums, police guns, tear gas, arrests, and jail sentences, the students tenaciously continued to sit down and demand equal service at variety store lunch counters, and they extended their protest from city to city. 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. In communities like Montgomery, Alabama, the whole student body rallied behind expelled students and staged a walkout while state government intimidation was unleashed with a display of military force appropriate to a wartime invasion. Nevertheless, the spirit of selfsacrifice and commitment remained firm, and the state governments found themselves dealing with students who had lost the fear of jail and physical injury. 

The campuses of Negro colleges were infused with a dynamism of both action and philosophical discussion. Even in the thirties, when the college campus was alive with social thought, only a minority were involved in action. During the sit-in phase, when a few students were suspended or expelled, more than one college saw the total student body involved in a walkout protest. This was a change in student activity of profound significance. Seldom, if ever, in American history had a student movement engulfed the whole student body of a college. 

Many of the students, when pressed to express their inner feelings, identified themselves with students in Africa, Asia, and South America. The liberation struggle in Africa was the great single international influence on American Negro students. Frequently, I heard them say that if their African brothers could break the bonds of colonialism, surely the American Negro could break Jim Crow. 

I felt we had to continue to challenge the system of segregation, whether it was in the schools, public parks, churches, lunch counters, or public libraries. Segregation had to be removed from our society. And Negroes had to be prepared to suffer, sacrifice, and even die to gain their goals. We could not rest until we had achieved the ideals of our democracy. I prayed much over our Southern situation, and I came to the conclusion that we were in for a season of suffering.

Statement at Youth March for Integrated Schools

As June approaches, with its graduation ceremonies and speeches, a thought suggests itself. You will hear much about careers, security, and prosperity. I will leave the discussion of such issues to your deans, your principals, and your valedictorians. But I do have a graduation thought to pass along to you. Whatever career you may choose for yourself-doctor, lawyer, teacher - let me propose an avocation to be pursued along with it. Become a dedicated fighter for civil rights. Make it a central part of your life.

It will make you a better doctor, a better lawyer, a better teacher. It will enrich your spirit as nothing else possibly can. It will give you that rare sense of nobility that can only spring from love and selflessly helping your fellow man. Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.

April 18, 1959, Washington, D.C.

I urged students to continue the struggle on the highest level of dignity. They had rightly chosen to follow the path of nonviolence. Our ultimate aim was not to defeat or humiliate the white man but to win his friendship and understanding. We had a moral obligation to remind him that segregation is wrong. We protested with the ultimate aim of being reconciled with our white brothers. 

A period began in which the emphasis shifted from the slow court process to direct action in the form of bus protests, economic boycotts, and mass marches to and demonstrations in the nation's capital and state capitals. The most significant aspect of this student movement was that the young people knocked some of the oldsters out of their state of apathy and complacency. What we saw was that segregation could not be maintained in the South without resultant chaos and social disintegration. One may wonder why the movement started with the lunch counters. The answer lay in the fact that there the Negro had suffered indignities and injustices that could not be justified or explained. Almost every Negro had experienced the tragic inconveniences of lunch counter segregation. He could not understand why he was welcomed with open arms at most counters in the store, but was denied service at a certain counter because it happened to be selling food and drink. In a real sense the "sit-in" represented more than a demand for service; it represented a demand for respect. 

I was convinced that the student movement that was taking place all over the South in 1960 was one of the most significant developments in the whole civil rights struggle. It was no overstatement to characterize these events as historic. Never before in the United States had so large a body of students spread a struggle over so great an area in pursuit of a goal of human dignity and freedom. The student movement finally refuted the idea that the Negro was content with segregation. The students had taken the struggle for justice into their own hands. Negro freedom fighters revealed to the nation and the world their determination and courage. They were moving away from tactics which were suitable merely for gradual and longterm change. This was an era of offensive on the part of oppressed people. All peoples deprived of dignity and freedom marched on every continent throughout the world. 

A turning point in my life

I can recall what may very well have been a turning point in my life as a participant in the Negro struggle in the South. It was the year 1960, in Montgomery, Alabama, when the glorious sit-ins at lunch counters had seized the attention of all Americans. The white Southern power structure, in an attempt to blunt and divert that effort, indicted me for perjury and openly proclaimed that I would be imprisoned for at least ten years.

Statement at Founding Conference of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

Today the leaders of the sit-in movement are assembled here from ten states and some forty communities to evaluate these recent sit-ins and to chart future goals. They realize that they must now evolve a strategy for victory. Some elements which suggest themselves for discussion are: (1) The need for some type of continuing organization .... (2) The students must consider calling for a nationwide campaign of "selective buying.". . . It is immoral to spend one's money where one cannot be treated with respect. (3) The students must seriously consider training a group of volunteers who will willingly go to jail rather than pay bail or fines. This courageous willingness to go to jail may well be the thing to awaken the dozing conscience of many of our white brothers. We are in an era in which a prison term for a freedom struggle is a badge of honor. (4) The youth must take the freedom struggle into every community in the South without exception. The struggle must be spread into every nook andcranny. Inevitably, this broadening of the struggle and the determinationwhich it represents will arouse vocal and vigorous support and place pressure on the federal government that will compel its intervention. (5)The students will certainly want to delve deeper into the philosophy of nonviolence. It must be made palpably clear that resistance and nonviolence are not in themselves good. There is another element that must bepresent in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.

April 15, 1960, in Raleigh, North Carolina

This case was tried before an all-white Southern jury. All of the State's witnesses were white. The judge and the prosecutor were white. The courtroom was segregated. Passions were inflamed. Feelings ran high. The press and other communications media were hostile. Defeat seemed certain, and we in the freedom struggle braced ourselves for the inevitable. There were two men among us who persevered with the conviction that it was possible, in this context, to marshal facts and law and thus win vindication. These men were our lawyers-Negro lawyers from the North: William Ming of Chicago and Hubert Delaney from New York. 

They brought to the courtroom wisdom, courage, and a highly developed art of advocacy; but most important, they brought the lawyers' indomitable determination to win. After a trial of three days, by the sheer strength of their legal arsenal, they overcame the most vicious Southern taboos festering in a virulent and inflamed atmosphere and they persuaded an all-white jury to accept the word of a Negro' over that of white men. The jury, after a few hours of deliberation, returned a verdict of acquittal. 

I am frank to confess that on this occasion I learned that truth and conviction in the hands of a skillful advocate could make what started out as a bigoted, prejudiced jury, choose the path of justice. I cannot help but wish in my heart that the same kind of skill and devotion which Bill Ming and Hubert Delaney accorded to me could be available to thousands of civil rights workers, to thousands of ordinary Negroes, who are every day facing prejudiced courtrooms.

NEXT: Chapter 15: Atlanta Arrest and Presidential Politics