Impact of sit-ins on American civil rights movement explored at Elon Law MLK forum
Franklin McCain, one of the NC A&T students who energized the civil rights movement in 1960 by sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., was the featured speaker at Elon Law's second annual Martin Luther King, Jr. forum on January 14.
The forum took place two weeks prior to the 50th anniversary of the sit-ins, which began in Greensboro on February 1, 1960.
Duke University historian William H. Chafe began the forum by describing what he called the "progressive mystique of the South, a much more genteel form of social control where the thinking was, 'we should be nice to people but not necessarily change the status quo.'"
"Manners became a substitute for progress, and that is one of the difficulties that people like Franklin McCain faced when they had to find some way to puncture that aura of civility, which was basically a very effective means of keeping things quiet and maintaining social control," Chafe said.
Chafe explained that the sit-ins were preceded by a well-established tradition of protests for equality by African Americans in North Carolina, particularly at colleges and high schools, but that the sit-ins were unique in their approach and impact.
"What happened on February 1 was the decisive tipping point which led to so much else happening, including basically the creation of the direct-action student civil rights movement, which is responsible for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the '65 Voting Rights Act, the '68 Housing Act. All that really had its inception in the direct action started by Franklin McCain and others," Chafe said.
A personal account
Franklin McCain then described how he and his friends arrived at the decision to initiate the sit-ins, noting how angry they had become at a system that denied them equal rights.
Knowing about the injustices of segregation, but doing nothing about it, was intolerable, McCain said.
"We concluded that we were probably the worst of the lot," McCain reflected. "We are aware of all these things and we do absolutely nothing? You don't feel good when you take that kind of inventory and make that kind of assessment. I had to find a way to redeem Franklin McCain and find some sense of relief and manhood, and I thought I owed something to the legacy of my parents, my grandparents, and my ancestors."
McCain also explained the group's thought process in choosing the sit-ins as a form of protest.
"We didn't pick the Woolworth's counter just out of a hat," McCain said. "We picked Woolworths because it represented a real dichotomy of treatment and offerings and service. It was a representation of another big lie, meaning that you could go to a Woolworth's in New York City or Philadelphia, and visit all 44 counters, including the lunch counter. You could come a little farther south, to Greensboro, and do your business at 43 counters and not number 44. And we thought, this is sinister. This is a place where we have a legitimate right and a way to attack it."
Asked if he was afraid as he walked toward the Woolworth's that day, McCain responded, "Hell no, I wasn't afraid. I was too angry to be afraid. Anxiety, yes, One of two things could happen. I knew my days as a student were going to be over. If I were lucky, I would go to jail for a long, long time. If I were not quite so lucky, I could come back to campus in a pine box. But it did not matter, because the way we were living was probably worse than either of those options."
McCain concluded by explaining the rewarding feeling he had in taking action for a just cause.
"Twenty seconds after I sat on that dumb stool, I had the most wonderful feeling. I had a feeling of self-fulfillment, I had a feeling of dignity 100 feet tall, I had a feeling of invincibility. I was somebody through my own accord and through my own action," McCain said.
Elon Law student Samantha Gilman said McCain's account of the sit-ins was inspiring.
"As an undergraduate at Elon, I took a civil rights class, read books about the sit-ins, and visited sit-in locations, but to talk to someone who participated in it was really meaningful. You can see it in movies and you can read all the books you can, but to hear it first-hand and feel what they were feeling at the moment really makes an impact," Gilman said.
Romallus Murphy, former general counsel for the North Carolina NAACP and past-president of the Guilford County Black Lawyer’s Association, reviewed civil rights litigation preceding the sit-in movement and described courageous actions of plaintiffs in those cases.
"The plaintiffs were young black males or females who had recently graduated from college," Murphy said. "If you were to sue the state of Texas or the state of Maryland in those days, your name and picture would be in the paper, they would know who your mother and father are, they would know where you live and where they work, and in some cases you may be subjected to economic reprisals."
Reviewing a series of state and Supreme Court cases in the 1950s, Murphy said that legal actions taken by the NAACP under the leadership of Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall were ultimately successful in overturning the separate but equal doctrine of Plessy v Ferguson.
Elon Law student Jeremy Ray said he valued Murphy's account of cases that laid a foundation for the sit-ins.
"Without hearing from those who were directly involved in the legal actions of the civil rights movement, you don't really get an idea of the true players who actually created the larger change that happened, especially some of the plaintiffs that took these law suits and just wore down the states until equal rights was finally developed," Ray said.
Elon Law student Tiffany Atkins said the forum sent the right message to law students.
"They each gave a different perspective on the importance of the sit-ins and how the law played a part in a movement that shaped our country," Atkins said. "I thought it was great that they challenged us to be empowered to really make change."
Elon Law student Amanda Tauber said the forum was important in helping law students consider their roles as attorneys.
"It was a great charge to all of us to be active," Tauber said. "We can't sit on our hands and wait for change to happen. As lawyers, we will have the influence, the intelligence, and the creativity to really make an active change in our communities and in the world."
Elon Law presented the forum in partnership with the law school's Black Law Students Association and Phi Alpha Delta chapter, and with support from the Law School Admission Council as part of DiscoverLaw.org Month.
Click on the E-Cast links to the right of this article to view video clips from the forum.