In November 1962, Little Rock's downtown lunch counters experienced a number of sit-ins that convinced businessmen and merchants to desegregate city facilities. At one level, Little Rock's story of downtown desegregation is similar to that of many other upper-South cities. But at another level, the story has significant differences that are particularly revealing of the city's race relations in the 1960s.
Sit-ins are a nonviolent direct protest tactic popularized by the civil rights movement in the 1960s. African Americans, and their supporters, protested segregation by sitting at whites-only lunch counters and demanding service. The tactic was related to the labor union sit-down strikes used in the United States and Europe in the first half of the 20th century, in which workers halted production lines and placed pressure on business owners to meet pay and condition demands. The Congress of Racial Equality first used sit-ins in the civil rights movement as early as 1942. Other groups in Kansas and Oklahoma held sit-ins in 1958. The lunch room protests confronted segregation laws and highlighted the injustice of white stores taking money from African American customers for purchases at the tills but not allowing them to eat at their lunch counters.
The sit-ins at the F.W. Woolworth Store begun by four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro on Feb. 1, 1960, truly ignited a sit-in movement. The first sit-in quickly drew support from fellow students. The protests then spread to neighboring towns and cities in the state, and then all across the South. Within a year, more than 100 cities had experienced sit-ins and at least 50,000 people had participated in them. A new civil rights organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC — pronounced "snick") was formed to coordinate the sit-in movement. The sit-ins succeeded in convincing many businesses in upper South cities to voluntarily desegregate rather than face continued disruption.
The first sit-in in Little Rock took place shortly after the Greensboro action. At 11 a.m. March 10, 1960, around 50 Philander Smith College students marched from campus to the F.W. Woolworth store on Main Street and asked for service at its whites-only lunch counter. The manager refused to serve the students and immediately alerted Police Chief Eugene G. Smith. The assistant store manager called Woolworth's home office in St. Louis for instructions and then closed the lunch counter. When Chief Smith arrived he asked the students to leave. All but five did so. Those remaining, Charles Parker, 22; Frank James, 21; Vernon Mott, 19; Eldridge Davis, 19, and Chester Briggs, 18, were arrested for loitering.
Shortly after arriving at the police station, the five arrested students made bail of $100 each, posted by the Little Rock chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The students had called Daisy Bates, the state NAACP president and co-owner of Little Rock's leading African American newspaper, the Arkansas State Press, to inform her of the intended protest. Daisy's husband, L.C. Bates, arranged a bondsman, mobilized attorneys, and went down to the city jail to ensure the release of the students. Reporters on the scene asked L.C. Bates why the students had staged a sit-in. "Well, put it this way," Bates told them, "You can go anywhere in any store and buy anything but when you try to buy food you are trespassing and the kids can't understand it and neither can I."
On March 17, the five arrested students appeared for trial at Municipal Court. Other Philander Smith students packed the courtroom in a show of solidarity with their friends. Judge Quinn Glover found the students guilty under Arkansas Act 266 that prohibited "any person from creating a disturbance or breach of the peace in any public place of business." Glover handed each student a $250 fine and a 30-day jail sentence. The students' lawyers, Harold B. Anderson of Little Rock and George Howard Jr. of Pine Bluff (later a federal judge), indicated that the students' fines and sentences would be appealed.
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